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
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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
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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 whitewavedarling
This was my third Amy Tan book, and while it was entertaining, I have to say that it just didn't quite live up to the standard set by the others I've read.

The characters were wonderful and believable, and the sense of mystery offered through Kwan especially was really engaging, but somehow the book
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as a whole just felt off-kilter. I had trouble staying engaged through the transitions between sisters, the voices were so totally different in terms of both voice and mood, and moving from section to section sometimes felt like a bit more whiplash than anything. This was especially the case at the end, where the last twenty pages or so left me a bit shocked by the progression and change... and not in a good way.

I suppose, all in all, a lot of things added up to hurt the read for me. Entertaining as it was, I didn't like the main character as much as I wanted to, and was far more interested in Kwan. The pacing felt choppy, especially when moving through the jumps in POV, and the mood of the book changed so much that sometimes it was hard to know what I was sitting down for... which led to my not finishing the book nearly as quickly as I would have otherwise, had I known what to expect (in terms of mood/genre) from chapter to chapter. And then there was the end, which I can only describe as surprising and off-putting.

Amy Tan's writing is gorgeous, and her characters are believable and engaging, but this book just didn't live up to the others I've read by her. I think there's something here to be appreciated by a lot of readers, and her fans especially, but if you're new to Amy Tan, this isn't the book I'd recommend starting with--I'd point you instead to The Bonesetter's Daughter or The Joy Luck Club. Meanwhile, I'll look forward to reading more of her work.
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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 Clara53
This is my first Amy Tan's novel, and I am impressed. I never thought I would really get into a novel that has shimmering ghosts as part of the theme. But I did! The interaction of the two main characters, half-sisters Olivia and Kwan, is complicated due to a host of reasons, not the least of which
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is Olivia's entanglement in so many personal problems. But Kwan, in an indirect way, slowly but surely disentangles them for her half-sister. Past lives, glimpses in China's history - all come into play here. Kwan's character won me over: her childlike, unabashedley frank and totally selfless personality coupled with unexpected wisdom of an aged person, the realistic ease with which Amy Tan describes Kwan as a Chinese person who finds herself in foreign to her circumstances and adjusts to them in her own way - all this, combined, leads to an unexpected and interesting denouement.
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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
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the Yin people and the afterlife.
A beautiful and breathtaking novel.
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LibraryThing member verenka
A strange and intense story about a difficult relationship between two sisters that stretches several lifetimes.
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 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 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 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 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
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interesting to see how far family will go for each other.
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LibraryThing member magst
What can I say that I haven't already said... GREAT BOOK!!!!
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 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 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
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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 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 norabelle414
This was excellent! I did not love The Joy Luck Club, but this book was way better. It has the interesting stories and good writing, but just two plot lines and fewer characters. Also the names were easier to remember.

At first I didn't at all understand Olivia's professed dislike for Kwan. She was
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a bit clingy and I understood Olivia's being jealous of her as a child. However, this did not translate into the teenage/adult dislike that Olivia mentioned throughout the first third of the book. Once I got into the meat of the story, though, this enmity seems to be forgotten and the book as a whole was much more relatable from then on.

I'm picky about books involving ghosts, but this one was good. Not too dismissive, not too superstitious. And of course I always love books about other cultures.
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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
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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 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
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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.
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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
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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 LynnB
This was an entertaining read about half-sisters, Olivia and Kwan. Olivia was born and raised in the U.S.; Kwan joined her stepmother's family as a teenager, several years older than Olivia. Kwan has "yin eyes" -- the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. Olivia doesn't believe a word of
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it....mostly. We see the relationship grow between these two sisters over time, and also see the past through Kwan's ghost stories. Well written.
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LibraryThing member Alphawoman
Reading for over a week. It puts me to sleep in a good way. Knowing I'm no where near going to be able to finish 75 books this year I'm not compelled or stressed to rush read. I'm in love with Kwan and wish she could be my sister. A larger than life character with an imagination that is beyond
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rivals and a generous heart that is so beautiful I want to seek her out even though I realize she is only a character in a book.
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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 engpunk77
Out of the three (Joy Luck, Kitchen God's Wife, & this one), this one was a little harder to get attached to at the beginning. But if you keep reading, the story unfolds beautifully. Tan is one of my favorite writers.


Women's Prize for Fiction (Longlist — 1996)
Dublin Literary Award (Longlist — 1997)



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