Monday, February 13, 2012

The Hundred Secret Senses - Future Regrets vs. In the Present

Title: The Hundred Secret Senses
Author: Amy Tan
Publisher: Random House - Ivy
ISBN: 978-0804111096
Pages: 399

When I was teaching high school English a few years ago, I had the opportunity to introduce my students to The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, mostly because we had copies of it at the school and it was on the AP English list. Since my students tended to straddle multiple cultures, the struggles between the daughters and the mothers seems an appropriate topic. But, for students, it can be a difficult book to understand - there are vignettes, flashbacks, and a constant change in narrator voice. However, most students enjoyed it, as did I. Amy Tan was all the rage in the late 1990s and early 2000s and received critical and popular acclaim for her first book The Joy Luck Club, but it seems that her work has been eclipse now by other authors of color in the United States. However, it was at that time that I picked up The Hundred Secret Senses (1995) because "everyone" was reading it. But, it sat on my shelf through two moves because I found Tan's work to be intense in its exploration of relationships and the disintegration of them.

LitLovers has some brief discussion questions for the book.
Robert Fletcher provides some study aids or background to the events.

The Hundred Secret Senses is also an exploration of relationships - between two half-sisters and a marriage. Libby, born in America to a Chinese man and American woman, finds she has a Chinese sister who was left behind when her father immigrated to the US. As a young child, when her father dies, her mother promises to find and raise the child. Kwan, 10 years older than Libby, is boisterous and strange in Libby's eyes - a person who says and talks to "yin people", the dead. Sharing a bedroom growing up, Libby is nearly raised by Kwan and is acculturated into the word of Chinese mysticism. Eventually, Libby "tattles" on Kwan and she is sent away to receive shock treatments and returns with frizzy hair but still seeing the yin people.

As Libby goes off to college, she attempts to separate herself from her sister, who continues to interpose herself in Libby's life. When Libby brings home her boyfriend, who can't release the memory of his dead girlfriend, Libby enlists Kwan's help in speaking for the dead girlfriend to help Simon move on with his life. Eventually, Libby and Simon marry, but the specter of the dead girlfriend hangs over Libby and eventually pushes them apart.

However, Kwan persuades Libby, as a photographer, and Simon, a writer, to accompany her to visit her mother and home village in China. Kwan is convinced Libby and Simon are destined to be together. There is a secondary story told throughout the book of Kwan's past life in which she befriended Miss Banner, a missionary, who died waiting to be reunited with her beloved. Kwan believes Libby and Simon are these two people and need to be reconciled - but by using their hundred secret senses, to recognize who they really are.

I was intrigued by the introduction to the book - the blunt description of how Libby struggled with dealing with her "weird" sister who was unconditionally devoted. I think we all have people in our lives who insert themselves in ways we don't appreciate a the time, but over time, we realize who much we needed their "interference." Unfortunately, we don't often get the opportunity to let them know how much their influence impacted us. Tan also documents the fizzling and re-kindling of a romance. The ghost in Simon and Libby's marriage is more of a ghost to Libby, than to Simon. With the petty demands of life - getting a house, career etc - the larger dreams and intimate talks tend to be pushed aside. They no longer "saw" each other for who they really were and stopped growing and changing together. When they went to China, they encountered new ideas, but also re-discovered themselves and in returned, their interest in each other. The typical joke of married life is that the longer you are together, the more you look and act alike. I think there needs to be a continued balance of predictability and novelty. There is comfort in knowing who your spouse will react to situations and things but there is also excitement in discovering new aspects of your spouse. Are people destined to be together? Do we really have "soul mates" that complete us? In Tan's world, yes, and the future regrets prevent one from moving on. In my world, I prefer to live in the present and appreciate what I have in front of me, rather than pining for the past or regretting the future.

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