~ A Book Review: The Hundred Secret Senses, Amy Tan ~

Posted: January 29, 2021 in Amy Tan, book review, Book reviewing, books, creativity, Family stories, Fiction, love, readers, Story, words, Writing
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I’ve finished reading my second novel for 2021, The Hundred Secret Senses. I’m a fan of Amy Tan and have waxed lyrical about her books in the past. Being a daughter of a mother, I find her preoccupation with mother-daughter relationships endlessly fascinating. Amy Tan can write a fantastic story, her blend of East and West is interesting and her descriptions always evocative. I guess I’m trying to put my finger on why I didn’t enjoy The Hundred Secret Senses. It wasn’t the writing or the setting, yet this book left me cold. I actually started reading it last year, but I kept putting it down and leaving it for long periods.

The Hundred Secret Senses is the story of two sisters, born to the same father, one girl raised in China, the other raised in America. It follows their relationship as they struggle to overcome cultural differences from the time they come together as a child and a young woman through a thirty-year period of their lives.

The main narrator is Olivia Laguni. A half Chinese woman born and raised in America, Olivia is a photographer whose marriage is falling apart. She tells the story of her childhood through a series of flashbacks. Olivia’s life was changed forever at six upon the arrival of her adult half-sister, Kwan Li, who says she has “yin eyes” and can see ghosts. Olivia’s love-hate relationship with her sister defines the rest of the book. Kwan is the second narrator, a poor girl from the Changmian village in the Thistle mountains, China. She tells of a lifetime of hardship. She tells family stories of wealth, downfall and terror in Manchu China and she also tells ghost stories.

The tale becomes one of two parts, as Olivia and Kwan take turns to narrate. Olivia struggles with the annoyingly wise unwanted sister and reflects on Kwan invading her life and space from the time she was young. Kwan openly shares her superstitions, her belief in the World of Yin, and tells amazing, horrifying stories of their family’s past. As Olivia’s marriage crumbles, Kwan pushes her buttons, never minding her own business. The book culminates with Olivia; her estranged husband and her sister Kwan taking a trip to China, which brings good things and bad things in equal measure, some scares and a final twist.

(Still from documentary feature Amy Tan: Unintended Memoir)

The story is told with a deft hand, Amy Tan knows how to pull the heartstrings and draw us in to her intoxicating world. I was sad I did not enjoy this book. There were a few niggles. For me, the different strands of the story took too long to mesh. As the reader, I questioned when it was going to make sense and that constant sense of waiting palled. But I most disliked the ghost stories. I remember years ago, award-winning author Kate De Goldi saying that when she sees red flags in the story, (foreshadowing the crises to come) it turns her off. We should do the foreshadowing in a way that the reader doesn’t notice. With this story, there were too many red flags. The hints continued, which diminished the ‘shock’ value of the twist. I didn’t like that. I’m not sure who it was but some famous author said, you need to respect your readers. Expect them to be intelligent enough to get what you’re saying without drumming them over the head with it.

That said, if I found myself marooned on a desert island with The Hundred Secret Senses, I would read it again. The overall core message of the story was transformative, being about the power of love, when our self-centred Olivia opens her heart and learns to love others. Amy Tan is a talented writer. I appreciate the glimpses she gives us through the keyhole into other cultures, other’s worlds. Readers don’t have to like everything by an author to still be a fan. No doubt I will buy the next book I see by Amy Tan and love it.

California born, Amy Tan is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She received a Master’s degree in linguistics. Both her first novel, The Joy Luck Club and her second, The Kitchen God’s Wife were number one in the US. They adapted her first book into a successful film. Amy Tan is the literary editor for West Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine. She has written several other novels, including The Hundred Secret Senses, and two children’s books.

My rating: Three stars.

Talk to you later.

Keep creating!

Yvette Carol

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“Too much happiness always overflows into tears of sorrow” ~ The Hundred Secret Senses

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Comments
  1. Hello. I most recently read Flight, a fast-paced novel by Sherman Alexie. Liked it a lot. It’s about a cynical, neglected youth who has an awakening.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. sometimes I feel as if I ask too much from my favourite authors. But in truth, I need/want to like the protagonist. S/he doesn’t have to be perfect. I prefer is they’re not. But they can’t be despicable. The other thing that will have me set the book aside is if the author makes me feel stupid because I don’t understand what’s going on. I’m hard enough on myself without being made to feel bad from an entertainment source. Most everything else I can forgive. Great review, Yvette. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • yvettecarol says:

      Thanks, Joylene. I forgot to mention that Olivia (the main protagonist) is only barely likable too! She whines and complains about Kwan the whole time and some of the things she does to Kwan (esp. when she was a child) were despicable. While Olivia was having a love/hate relationship with her sister, I was having the same relationship with her! I think it makes it awfully hard to really invest in a story if you’re irritated with the protagonist.

      Liked by 1 person

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