The hundred secret senses

by Amy Tan

Hardcover, 1995






New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, c1995.


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member KinnicChick
This is a story within a story. Kwan is the daughter of main character Olivia's father who they only learn about when he is dying. He had her when he was a young man in China before immigrating to the US when the opportunity came up. His young wife had already tragically died so he left Kwan with his sister-in-law there and promised that he would return for her when he could. The chance never presented itself before his death, but his wife in the new country promised him on his death bed that she would bring the (now almost adult) child to the US and raise Kwan as her own, with her other three children.

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. :)
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LibraryThing member writestuff
When she is five years old, Olivia meets a half sister she never knew she had. Kwan is twelve years older and arrives from China to live with Olivia and her family in San Francisco. It is 1962 and Kwan has lived a life light years away from Olivia in terms of culture and language, religion and belief – she is a puzzle to Olivia as she offers up stories of an ancient previous life lived in mid-nineteenth century China. Kwan seems to have the power to communicate with the dead through her “yin eyes,” something that fascinates, frightens and bewilders Olivia.

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.

Highly Recommended.
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LibraryThing member chmessing
Really liked this one. If Amy Tan's other books are this good, it looks like I've got some more books to add to my "to read" list!
LibraryThing member magst
What can I say that I haven't already said... GREAT BOOK!!!!
LibraryThing member CatieN
Olivia and Kwan are half-sisters who share a father. Kwan believes she can not only see ghosts (yin people) but can talk to them. Olivia thinks she is crazy. Mesmerizing story about their trip to China to Kwan's childhood home and ghosts and reincarnation and unconditional love. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member name99
I listened to this to get something of a feel for China, and truth is, I found it much more moving than I expected. The China background was nice, and interesting, but it also simply happens to be a very compelling story.
LibraryThing member lyzadanger
I tore through this. Because of this, my first thought was, hey, this must be patsy chick drivel, because it's really easy to read. It's smacks of the mid-nineties setting it lives in and the protagonist is an whining, typical self-stylized photographer with hostility about her childhood and ambivalence about her Chinese-American heritage.

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.
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LibraryThing member vegaheim
little girl olivia gets a halfsister, kwan, from china. kwan is very traditional and superstitious. tells olivia about ghosts etc. explores relationship between the two during the years (from childhood to adulthood) ending is supernatural, great
LibraryThing member angela.vaughn
I have to say that Amy Tan is one of my favorite authors. I was not disappointed with this book.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member verenka
A strange and intense story about a difficult relationship between two sisters that stretches several lifetimes.
LibraryThing member rudik5834
The story of sisters reuniting from different cultures,Olivia and Kwan.Kwan arrives in America as the last dying wish of their father.the story leads us through many past lives.The Hundred Secret Senses follows the lifes of Olivia and Kwan.
The reader is challanged to question their own beliefs of the Yin people and the afterlife.
A beautiful and breathtaking novel.
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LibraryThing member JoClare
"The Hundred Secret Senses" is my favorite book by Amy Tan; while I loved the "Joy Luck Club", the humor and gentle characterization of Kwan kept me mesmerized.

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.

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LibraryThing member kakadoo202
the first half was slow, but then then second half I could not stop reading. It really picked up and you wanted to now more. The ending is not predictable regarding Kwan. At least was not to me. liked the book a lot.
LibraryThing member cestovatela
Amy Tan apparently only has one story in her: child loses parent with whom they had a troubled relationship, discovers lost relatives in China. It was moderately entertaining the first two times; now it's just stale.
LibraryThing member shieldwolf
Chinese-American Olivia Laguni's life is changed by her nemesis and half-sister, Kwan Li, whose haunting predictions and implementation of the secret senses link their family's struggles to the challenges of their ancestors.
LibraryThing member ffortsa
A lovely tale of two women from very different cultures, one of whom believes in the endless and very personal cycles of reincarnation, the other very western and rational, who resists even the most beguiling evidence that the two of them have been connected before.
LibraryThing member Hebephrene
I was surprised at how badly written this was. I was curious about Tan because of her popularity. The distressing discovery is that there wasn't one genuine emotion in the book. The main character tells you all these things she feels but none of it is believable and clearly Tan doesn't care. She is writing to give you a plot one that uses her knowledge of Chinese cultural history. However, the plot is silly. In the old Star Trek episodes if the plot was in trouble they had a device where the character would announce that the problem was with the flibberty-gibit. And presto chango, they would fix the flibberty-gibit and all would be well. Tan in this book (and maybe it's her worst) you just invent something that happened in another life time. The one redemptive feature was the character Kwan who represents the profoundly unspiritual pragmatic aspect of the Chinese. She is refreshing and fresh and consistent and steals the show. She is the point of contact where you realize what Tan has to work with. But sadly other elements which could have worked like the description of the Chinese countryside are abysmal. Tan is too lazy to bring them to life, preferring instead to say they are as beautiful as picture card. My favorite line was when one of the characters comes across the scene of a massacre and another character when asked to explain what happens says: I would prefer not to talk about that right now! The popularity is that it is a big multi-generational epic.… (more)
LibraryThing member jedisluzer
This is my favorite Amy Tan.
LibraryThing member varielle
This is the story of half sisters Olivia and Kwan. Olivia is all-American, but Kwan didn't join her sister in the states until she was a teenager during the Cultural Revolution. Normally, I dislike anything that smacks of magical realism, as it feels like cheating. I'll make an exception in this case, as logical, westernized Olivia can't tell if her sister Kwan is merely superstitious, just a little bit crazy, or if she can really commune with ghosts, or whether the fabulous stories she tells of past lives are real. I've found Tan's books to be inconsistent and prone to beating out the same themes over and over again. However, this was an enjoyable read about cultural identity and the meaning of family.… (more)
LibraryThing member Maggie_Rum
Amy Tan is such a wonderful storyteller! While it isn't my favorite Tan work, it's up there.
LibraryThing member zibilee
Olivia was born to a Chinese father and American mother and has lived all her life in San Fransisco. Her father passes away while she’s still young, but not before telling her mother he was married before and fathered a child in China. As his dying wish, he asks Olivia’s mother to find this child and bring her to America. Soon Olivia’s half-sister, Kwan, is living with the family, but she’s not what you would call normal by Chinese nor American standards. Kwan claims to have yin eyes, a condition that allows her to see and speak with the ghosts of the departed, and also to have had some very interesting past lives which she shares in detail with Olivia over and over again. Olivia doesn’t much like Kwan, and the two sisters never manage to have the close relationship that Kwan so hopes for. Olivia is also having problems of a different kind, for she is going through a divorce from Simon, a man whom she once loved but now can’t stop arguing with. Though Kwan tries to push Olivia and Simon back together over and over again, it’s only when the three agree to go to China for a visit to Kwan’s old home that Simon, Olivia and Kwan discover each other again and realize the fateful place they all share in one another’s lives. Part family drama and part ghost story, The Hundred Secret Senses is Amy Tan at her best, once again telling a story that is nestled somewhere between China and America.

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.
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LibraryThing member bookheaven
Interesting and different
LibraryThing member Kitscot
American Chinese Olivia Laguni finds out she has an older Chinese half sister, Kwan Li, after her father’s death bed confession to her mother. From initially being excited about the prospect of having a sister the six year olds excitement soon evaporates and turns into embarrassment and resentment of her mangled English speaking sister. This embarrassment is compounded by Kwan’s belief that she can see and talk to dead people in the World of Yin. Interwoven with Olivia’s story of her life in San Francisco are the stories told by Kwan of her former life in China.
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.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
I am a fan of Amy Tan's but this may be her "oddest" premise, involving reincarnation and a double story line. Ultimately it's about belief, loyalty, love and hope. But it did not capture me as her other works have done.
LibraryThing member mirrani
It's hard to say exactly how you should classify this book, other than to say it is one of the books you will most likely enjoy all around. There were times when the main character frustrated the dickens out of me and there were times when I felt exactly how she felt regarding her sister, who could be most annoying. All of that just means that this is a good representation of life the way it is for millions of people out there in the world. We all have someone in our family who drives us crazy, we all have troubles and hopefully we find a way through them, even if it means the ones you didn't want to take help from are the ones who actually came to your rescue.

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.
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