two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
20-Jan-Feb-2006
By: 
Amy Tan
user_rating: 
0

A-SavingFishDrowningBibi Chen is a sassy, elderly, and deceased (and thus helpfully omniscient) narrator who reports her tale of an American tourist expedition to China that she had organized prior to her demise. In her name, 11 motley Americans carry on with the trip. Mistaking a shrine to female genitalia for a urinal, the group is furiously ousted, but not without a multi-lifetime curse. They are then lured across the border to Myanmar (formerly Burma) by the Karen tribe, which believes that one of the Americans—the teenaged Rupert with his magic card tricks—is their returned Messiah, come to deliver them from the terrors of the military government. But amid the comedy of ignorance emerges the possibility of redemption—and of understanding, in the grandest sense, of the Mind of Others.
Putnam 474 pages. $26.95. ISBN: 0399153012

San Diego Union-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Tan is an excellent tour guide, translating not only cultural differences but cultural intent as well. Isn’t that really what all her books are about? When she writes, something is added to the translation, rather than lost." Thornton Sully

Chicago Sun-Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Despite the extreme contrasts in the humorous stories and the serious ones, Tan has made of them a flavorful concoction of sweet and sour. Read it and have a few good laughs. Read it and weep." Sharon Barrett

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Such insights are rarely found in adventure tales. Yet Tan is writing in an era in which our superpowers are changing foreign lands in all too fantastical ways, and she shows us that celestial wisdom has its real-life uses." Yxta Maya Murray

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"When it finds its point, Saving Fish from Drowning is replete with the riches that have made Tan’s reputation. … But the novel is so suffused with repetition and dead-end anecdotes that the reader is as weary as our disoriented tourists by the time the action starts." Gail Caldwell

Minneapolis Star Tribune 2.5 of 5 Stars
"If we read the mother-daughter story here more deeply than it’s written, it’s because Tan has written it better elsewhere. The power of Saving Fish, like that of other baggy collections of travelers’ tales, lies more in its parts than its whole." Jan Zita Grover

Seattle Times 2 of 5 Stars
"Tan is betting that by juggling magical realism, romantic comedy, mystery and political farce, her book will seduce readers into turning the pages and consciousness ultimately will be raised. The gamble doesn’t quite pay off." Barbara Lloyd McMichael

Washington Post 1.5 of 5 Stars
"The cultural misunderstandings … and the way in which the media operate in sensational cases are amusing and could have been insightful. … [But] by the time you get there, you’re ready to go home." Craig Nova

Critical Summary

Tan (The Opposite of Fate, 3.5 of 5 Stars Mar/Apr 2004) explores satire, absurdity, and magical realism with varying degrees of success. Although her forays into spiritual depth are familiar, her gossipy and somewhat off-putting narrator, who shares her catty opinions on the likes of national body odors and each of the many fumbling love affairs, is an irritating distraction. Setting the stage in tumultuous Myanmar (the old Burma renamed by the military government in power) is daring and promising, but the understanding that grows between the Karen tribe and the Americans never quite pays off. While Tan’s novel could be The Canterbury Tales for the modern soul, this pilgrimage is slightly too inclined to exhaustive wandering.