Thursday, December 30, 2010

Book Review of The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

Name of book:  The Hundred Secret Senses

Author Name: Amy Tan

ISBN: 0-8041-1109-X

Publisher: Ivy Books, Ballantine Books

Type of Book: Adult, fantasy-history china, contemporary

Year it was published: 1995

Summary:  From amazon: "Olivia, the narrator of this story, was born to an American mother and a Chinese father. She meets her 18-year-old Chinese half sister, Kwan, for the first time shortly after their father's death. Kwan adores "Libby-ah" and tries to introduce her to her Chinese heritage through stories and memories. Olivia is embarrassed by her sibling, but finds as she matures that she has inadvertently absorbed much about Chinese superstitions, spirits, and reincarnation. Olivia explains, "My sister Kwan believes she has Yin eyes. She sees those who have died and now dwell in the World of Yin..." Now in her mid-30s, Olivia, a photographer, is still seeking a meaningful life. The climax of the story comes when she and her estranged husband Simeon, a writer, go to China on assignment with Kwan as the interpreter. In the village in which she grew up, Kwan returns to the world of Yin, her mission completed. Olivia finally learns what Kwan was trying to show her: "If people we love die, then they are lost only to our ordinary senses. If we remember, we can find them anytime with our hundred secret senses." The meshing of the contemporary story of Olivia and the tales Kwan tells of her past life in late-19th century China may confuse some readers. "

Characters: While the characters of Kwan and Olivia are kind of drawn out and tend to be somewhat complex, other characters like that of Simon or Olivia's parents aren't drawn out and are one dimensional. (Sure the father has died when Olivia was but a little girl, but certainly the mother must have mentioned or talked about the father often.) Oh wait, the mother is Caucasian and the father is Chinese, thus the mother is disloyal and tends to be a bad mother when compared to Chinese mothers in her other books. Olivia also creates drama and whatnot on purpose and often doesn't really say whats in her heart. Its very difficult to understand her and what motivates her. She is also mean to Kwan and Simon and her change at the end feels very contrived and forced.

Theme: From p.399 "I think Kwan intended to show me the world is not a place but the vastness of the soul.. And the soul is nothing more than love, limitless, endless, all that moves us toward knowing what is true. I once thought love was supposed to be nothing but bliss. I now know it is also worry and grief, hope and trust. And believing in ghosts-that's believing that love never dies. If people we love die, then they are lost only to our ordinary senses. If we remember, we can find them, anytime with our hundred secret senses. 'This is a secret,' I can still hear Kwan whispering. 'Don't tell anyone. Promise, Libby-ah.'" The message itself is profound but from this impression, I would assume that hundred secret senses deal more with memory than anything else and I can't help but remember Lain Serial Experiments, where at the end of the episode, one of the characters said that if you're not remembered then you no longer exist, but, I assume, at the end the characters remembered Lain on a deeper level which is what the book is attempting to convey. Even if a person is gone physically, then in someway they're not gone at all and one can still see them.

Plot: The plot wasn't written well at all and one of the problems I had was the lack of resolution. The readers, for instance, don't learn much about Kwan's and Olivia's present lives such as whether or not Kwan was telling the truth about their father, or about Buncake. To me those were pretty important plot points and I didn't care about the past lives they had or what they were about. The ending doesn't seem to be satisfying and one would like to know if perhaps Kwan's power has passed down or not.

Author Information: She was born in Oakland California in 1952, lived in Switzerland, returned to America and married a lawyer. There is a claim that I found that she used to go to a psychiatrist who several times fell asleep while listening to her, so she wrote a novel dealing with mother-daughter relationships. Her first novel is called The Joy luck club. Her other novels were titled Hundred Secret Senses, The Kitchen God's wife, Bonesetter's Daughter, and Saving Fish From Drowning. She is married to an American by the name of Louis DeMattei who was a lawyer.

Opinion: When comparing this book to Kitchen God's Wife or The Joy Luck Club, it feels far more polished and less traumatic. The problem, yet again, is the female character's neurosis and likability. I had a hard time liking or understanding or believing any of the characters. I also felt that the last name and Kwan disappearing subplot was pointless since it wasn't resolved. (If you have no plans on concluding the plot then don't bring it up please,) and the ending was cheapened and pointless.

1 out of 5
(0: Stay away unless a masochist 1: Good for insomnia 2: Horrible but readable; 3: Readable and quickly forgettable, 4: Good, enjoyable 5: Buy it, keep it and never let it go.)


  1. I agree with you about this book. It seems like the plot wasn't resolved well and things like her father weren't addressed when that could have probably helped give more context on why Olivia is the way she is. The book mentions she is like her father, but then didn't go much deeper than that. I also would rather have read about Kwan and Olivia's personal present lives, rather than just the past of Miss Banner and Nunumu. Overall, it was a pretty strange book. I thought this review by Claire Messud was pretty spot on, and goes with our feelings on this as well.

  2. I totally hooked up with Amy Tan writing after reading it.. Such a nice book
    my review : The Hundred Secret Senses


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