Hundred Secret Senses

Amy Tan, Author Putnam $24.95 (358p) ISBN 978-0-399-14114-0
Again grounding her novel in family and the workings of fate, Tan (The Kitchen God's Wife) spins the tale of two sisters, two cultures, and several acts of betrayal. Kwan, who came to San Francisco from China when she was 18, remains culturally disjointed, a good-natured, superstitious peasant with a fierce belief that she has ``yin eyes,'' which enable her to see ghosts. Kwan's younger half-sister Olivia (or Libby-ah, as Kwan calls her) is supremely annoyed by Kwan's habit of conversing with spirits and treats her with disdain. Despite herself, however, Libby is fascinated by the stories Kwan tells of her past lives, during one of which, in the late 1800s, she claims to have befriended an American missionary who was in love with an evil general. Kwan relates this story in installments that alternate with Libby's narration, which stresses her impatience with Kwan's clinging presence. But Kwan's devotion never cools: ``She turns all my betrayals into love that needs to be betrayed,'' Libby muses. When circumstances take Kwan, Libby and Libby's estranged husband, Simon, back to Kwan's native village in China on a magazine assignment, the stories Kwan tells--of magic, violence, love and fate--begin to assume poignant--and dangerous--relevance. In Kwan, Tan has created a character with a strong, indelible voice, whose (often hilarious) pidgin English defines her whole personality. Needy, petulant, skeptical Libby is not as interesting; though she must act as Kwan's foil, demonstrating the dichotomy between imagination and reality, she is less credible and compelling, especially when she undergoes a near-spiritual conversion in the novel's denouement. Indeed, some readers may feel that the ending is less than satisfactory, but no one will deny the pleasure of Tan's seductive prose and the skill with which she unfolds the many-layered narrative. Major ad/promo; BOMC and QPB main selections; author tour. (Oct.)
Reviewed on: 04/01/1996
Release date: 10/01/1995
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