It’s been so long since I read Amy Tan’s The Hundred Secret Senses that all I could remember about it was that a) I really liked it, b) there was reincarnation, and c) hundred-year-old duck eggs somehow played a role in the plot. I needed a good book to read today, since the last two books I read were kind of duds. The Hundred Secret Senses delivered; it was even better than I remembered. In this novel, Tan once again explores cultural and generational clashes between Chinese American and Chinese relatives. This is not another Joy Luck Club, however, as the the plot asks us to take a chance on the idea of reincarnation and promises kept across lifetimes.
Olivia was very excited to learn that she had a sister. Unfortunately, the excitement didn’t last long after Olivia met Kwan. Kwan was her father’s first child; he left her behind when he had a chance to come to the United States in the late 1940s. Unlike thoroughly modern and American Olivia (as she believes herself to be), Kwan speaks broken English, knows nothing, about life in America, and sees ghosts. Her worst crime, in Olivia’s eyes, is that Kwan tries too hard to be Olivia’s best friend. Even when they’re older, Olivia never really stops being mortified by Kwan.
Olivia shares narration duties for The Hundred Secret Senses with Kwan. Olivia’s recollections of her childhood and her disintegrating marriage are interwoven with Kwan’s stories about her previous life during the Taiping Rebellion. Kwan insists that she and Olivia were best friends in a previous life and she made promises in that past life that she is now trying to keep.
These recollections are a major part of why I love this book. I had little sympathy for Olivia and her embarrassments, but I was fascinated by Kwan’s lively histories and weird (un)common sense about how people ought to live their many lives. That said, we need Olivia as a protagonist because she is the one who has to grow up. Generally speaking, Kwan knows who she is, what she wants, and how to get the things she wants. Olivia is stuck and in need of change. If I’ve learned nothing else from fiction it’s that books don’t work if a character doesn’t evolve.
Apart from liking the book, I’m not sure what I thought of this book the first time I read it. That was such a long time ago. This time around, I’m sure I caught more of the nuances and understood more of the history the characters reference. I was also struck by the stark contrasts between American and Chinese culture and world views. The Americans are very secular, but have little understanding of their own psychology and obligations to one another. The American characters keep hurting each other’s feelings in their ignorance. The Chinese characters seem more willing to make accommodations with their environments and histories. Things are the way they are. Why not try to make the best of it? Both cultures have their problems. That said, the tone of the novel favors the Chinese, especially Kwan’s, way of life.
The Joy Luck Club made such a splash that any other Tan novel is going to be compared to it. I can say that The Joy Luck Club is the more sophisticated novel, but I had more fun reading The Hundred Secret Senses. The characters in The Hundred Secret Senses are less miserable and less angry, overall, and Kwan cracks me up every time she gets the best of Olivia. Even though there is quite a lot of death in The Hundred Secret Senses, this is a surprisingly vibrant and vivacious story.