The story of two sisters, one brought up in the U.S., the other in China. The American sister is contemptuous of the other's belief in ghosts until events cause her to understand what they can do. A tale of two cultures by the author of The Kitchen God's Wife.
Olivia believed this new sister was coming to replace her. But all Kwan (who looked nothing like the skinny baby photo their father had carried with him all of those years) ever wanted was love and loyalty from her little sister and that's what she provided Libby-ah.
This is not a linear story. For Kwan has yin eyes. She can see dead people. She remembers her own past life with some of these yin people who are around her now and she tells Libby-ah stories of the past and of the yin people.
This is a book rich in character, place and history. I first heard portions of it as an audiobook several years ago on a family vacation and still had that voice and those accents in my head as I read. It provided more of the flavor, I think. I've had it on my bookshelves because i knew I would read it some day. Orange January gave me the perfect opportunity. I highly recommend this book to every one. Amy Tan is a genius. :)
Narrated mostly from the point of view of Olivia, but interspersed with Kwan’s fantastic stories, The Hundred Secret Senses is a novel about two sisters and their complicated relationship. As Olivia struggles with her failing marriage, Kwan is her constant companion, whether Olivia likes it or not. Olivia is removed from her Chinese heritage and embarrassed by Kwan’s stilted English and superstitious beliefs. But despite her best efforts to dismiss Kwan’s stories, Olivia finds herself drawn into a world where dead people speak, the past becomes entwined with the present, and fate seems unavoidable.
Fate has no logic, you can’t argue with it any more than you can argue with a tornado, an earthquake, a terrorist. Fate is another name for Kwan. – from The Hundred Secret Senses, page 168 -
Amy Tan’s characters jump to life on the page. Original, funny, and deeply complex, the characters drive this story about human connection, love, secrets, and the mystery of life itself. I loved Kwan, a character who is quirky, lovable, and immensely wise.
Kwan, in contrast, is a tiny dynamo, barely five feet tall, a miniature bull in a china shop. Everything about her is loud and clashing. She’ll wear a purple checked jacket over turquoise pants. She whispers loudly in a husky voice, sounding as if she had chronic laryngitis, when in fact she’s never sick. She dispense health warnings, herbal recommendations, and opinions on how to fix just about anything, from broken cups to broken marriages. She bounces from topic to topic, interspersing tips on where to find bargains. Tommy once said that Kwan believes in free speech, free association, free car-wash with fill-’er-up. The only change in Kwan’s English over the last thirty years is in the speed with which she talks. Meanwhile, she thinks her English is great. She often corrects her husband. “Not stealed,” she’ll tell George. “Stolened.” – from The Hundred Secret Senses, page 21 -
Tan takes her readers back to China, into an old world of tiny towns and breathtaking vistas, and immerses us in a world of Chinese ghosts and deeply entrenched superstition. She slowly reveals the relationship between Olivia and Kwan, moving toward a conclusion which is surprising, heartbreaking, and filled with hope.
I loved this book with its mix of humor and sentiment. Tan alternates between reality and spiritual knowledge, turning what we think we know on its head. She reveals a deeper understanding about what it means to be human and connected in a world which seems vast and mysterious. Readers who appreciate lyrical writing and complex characterization will want to add this Tan novel to their must read pile. The Hundred Secret Senses earned Tan a spot on the 1996 short list for The Orange Prize for Fiction.
But then I realized that the reason it is so quick to read is that it is very, very interesting. The rhythm is built with two interlaced storylines (nothing too new here), one the present day and the other a quasi-mythical romp through 19th Century rural China. Tan's storytelling craft, especially with the Chinese portions, is honed. The plot is at times trying (separated couple soul-searching as to whether they should get back together again; house-shopping in San Francisco), most of it is compelling, with, if not blatant twists, interesting curves.
And I'm loathe to admit it, but the plot/emotional denouement at the end got me. I stayed up late into the night and savored it.
Two sisters go through life trying to figure out what they have in common besides a father, and then try to work out the differences in their own ways. It was heart warming and heartbreaking. It is interesting to see how far family will go for each other.
The reader is challanged to question their own beliefs of the Yin people and the afterlife.
A beautiful and breathtaking novel.
At her father's death-bed, 3-year-old Olivia Yee learns she is not her daddy's only little girl, when he requests that a daughter he left behind in his native China (from an undisclosed first marriage) be brought to America.
18-year-old Kwan soon comes to the United States and finally meets her American stepfamily. Kwan is immediately taken with her young half sister, Olivia. Olivia on the other hand, is embarrased by her Chinese half-sister, and fearful of the stories Kwan tells only to Olivia about ghosts, and the "yin eyes", which give Kwan the ability to see the dead. Olivia ("Libby-ah" as Kwan pronounces it) does everything in her power to turn Kwan's attentions from her, but Kwan continues to embrace the reluctant Olivia, now grown into adulthood.
Kwan is a marvelous character, making you laugh out loud as she decorates her home with garage-sale finds, wears outlandish mis-matched clothes that clash, and has a penchant for buying an array of crazy household gadgets. In contrast Olivia is subject to dark moods and after 17 years of marriage, still lives in the shadow of her husband's dead fiance.
It is through Kwan's eyes that we see the complex tapestry of the half-sisters' cultural heritage. Years after her sister's frightening stories about the mysterious world of Yin, Olivia finds herself in China, looking for a way to reconcile the ghosts of her past with the dreams of her future and learns to believe in ghosts and the hundred secret senses that keep the past alive.
I’ve long been a fan of Amy Tan’s work and have read just about everything she’s ever published. I originally read this book many years ago but had pretty much lost whatever insights I had on it over time. When the opportunity came to review the book, I jumped at it, because who could refuse a stay in Tan’s lush and wonderful world once again. As I read, little bits of the book came back to me, but I have to admit that most of it took me by surprise, which was just what I had been hoping would happen. Though this is not my favorite of Tan’s books (that honor would go to The Kitchen God’s Wife) I did have an excellent time rereading this one. Tan is a master at creating the kinds of characters that you instantly care for and her plot lines are just wonderful.
Kwan and Olivia are a strange pair, and though they share no similarities or traits, Kwan is forever speaking about the likenesses between them. While Kwan is loving and forgiving, able to believe in past lives and ghosts, Olivia is more canny and headstrong; sometimes she can even be considered cruel. As the girls grow and mature together, they never lose these traits. Despite the fact that Olivia treats her shabbily, Kwan is always looking out for her younger sister and always willing to think the best of her. I liked Kwan, but Olivia was a different matter. She was often hard-hearted and emotionally cantankerous, who, when forced to deal with the softer and nobler emotions, often turned selfish and vindictive. This is true not only in her relationship with Kwan but in her relationship with Simon as well. Olivia is aghast with Kwan most of the time and resents her with a passion that Kwan refuses to notice or internalize, and with Simon, Olivia is jealous and possessive, not giving him the space or time to grieve his past losses.
As Kwan tells Olivia the story of her past life, she shares how she lived with Jesuit missionaries in 1800s China and befriended an American woman named Miss Banner, who had secrets of her own. This historical fiction component was wedged seamlessly into the modern day storyline and presented Kwan in a more full and all-encompassing light, revealing her her character, not only from days past, but in the present as well. As the historical plot line advances, we see the reason it was so hard for Kwan to be loyal to Miss Banner and why the woman came to depend on her above all others. This storyline skirted the lines between war, loyalty and romance, and was the perfect companion story to the modern day tale of Olivia and Kwan.
In the modern timeline, Olivia begins to reveal her failed relationship with Simon, and she creates a picture of a broken man and couple whom time has never been able to heal. Simon and Olivia’s relationship is plagued by the yearning Olivia suspects him of feeling for a lover from his past, and when Simon, Kwan and Olivia travel to China to visit Kwan’s homeland, each go searching for something different. As the trip progresses, resentments and doubts rear their ugly heads but begin to fall away after the unthinkable happens. The three then embark on new and tenuous courses in their relationships, and Olivia discovers a secret about herself that will not only change her relationship to Kwan, but to Simon as well.
This book is actually several stories within a story, and as it flows gracefully along, the themes of identity, family and memory are visited and revisited in the narrative. It ends on a bittersweet note, yet it’s not devoid of hope, and though some of the characters show great emotional growth, others hang on to stubborn and recalcitrant behaviors. It was a story that highlighted the importance of forgiveness and showed the delicacy and love between sisters so different from each other, yet so similar. A great read that will wrap you in Tan’s spell until the final page.
The sisters are the narrators, with Olivia being the primary one. The main body of the novel has Olivia relating her life in San Francisco between the 1960s and the 1990s. As Olivia grows up she continues to be embarrassed by her half sister Kwan who is twelve years older than Olivia. Kwan’s broken English and her lack of knowledge of American ways creates a climate of bullying and teasing for Olivia as other children perceive Kwan to be a ‘retard’. This childhood trauma and subsequent dislike and resentment of Kwan bleeds through to Olivia’s adulthood and is exacerbated by Kwan’s interference in Olivia’s relationship with her partner Simon.
Kwan, however, unreservedly loves her little sister even when it transpires that because of Olivia, Kwan is sent to a mental hospital due to her belief that she can see dead people.
During Olivia’s childhood Kwan tells her ‘ghost stories’. Stories of the dead people she sees. These stories continue into adulthood and in addition Kwan recounts stories of her past lives.
Convolutedly, Kwan, Olivia and Simon visit China and in particular where Kwan grew up.
The author of bestseller The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan, has crafted an ornate, chiaroscuro like piece of work with The Hundred Secret Senses. The novel is about America and China, life and death, cultural incongruities and the difficulty of filial devotion to one’s siblings.
However, fundamentally the novel is about relationships; the relationship between married couples, siblings, parents and their children and the most difficult relationship we all face, between the living and the dead. Amy Tan handles all these issues with adroit aplomb.
There is a little bit of mystery about this story, which jumps smoothly back and forth from the retelling of events long ago in China to events happening in the present. There is also an element of the paranormal about this story that doesn't necessarily make you believe, but presents everything as if it could happen every day to anyone on the street. You don't have to believe to enjoy the story, you just have to sit back and read, the writing does the rest.
Believable characters, interesting plot twists, mystery, emotion, and overcoming hardships; this book has it all. It also made the Orange Prize (now Women's Prize) shortlist in 1996 and was a New York Times bestseller for fiction in 1995, which only shows just how many others agree that this is a book worth having on your shelf.