"The Hundred Secret Senses," by Amy Tan. G.P. Putnam's Sons. 358 pages. $24.95 Shamelessly manipulative, cloyingly sentimental, blatantly false and phony - yes, it's a new, sure-to-be-best-selling Amy Tan novel streaking into town. The word "seductive" is sometimes applied to Ms. Tan's prose - a point readily granted, with the proviso that, in addition to a certain slick attractiveness, "seductive" connotes calculation and even a degree of contempt.
"The Hundred Secret Senses" tells the story of two half-sisters. One, Kwan, is brought to San Francisco from China at the age of 18 to nurture her lonely young half-Chinese sibling Olivia - "Libby-ah" - whose widowed American mother is man-obsessed and neglectful. Libby-ah resents Kwan's intrusion but is forced to yield to it: "I became," she says, "the only one in our family who learned Chinese. Kwan infected me with it. She pushed her Chinese secrets into my brain and changed how I thought about the world."
The adult Libby-ah winds up in a half-broken marriage to a sterile quarter-Chinese writer and has a half-formed career as a photographer. Kwan, on the other hand, knows no fashionable ambivalences. Tirelessly promoting the wisdom of Chinese tradition, she insists Libby-ah must return to her husband, and, ultimately, shepherds the separated pair on a visit to the family home in rural China.
Kwan is pretty remarkable. Each chapter turns from the present day to her tales about life in a Chinese village in the middle of the last century. It's not long before we realize that Kwan, famed for her "yin eyes" - the ability to see ghosts - believes she's remembering, rather than imagining, a 19th-century past.
So what's wrong with a little story about a world where problems are filed in a "to be continued" drawer for a couple of years or a century or two? To begin with, some readers will find the fatalism - one endlessly repeated storyline and a limited cast of characters - claustrophobic, to say the least. If you or anyone you know has "yin eyes," there's no escaping, ever, a passive, ineffectual lover or a meddlesome acquaintance.
But the nonsense goes deeper. Kwan is specifically presented as Libby-ah's guardian angel; at one point, she returns from the land of the dead in a purloined body just so she won't fail the future Libby-ah. The ideal of a maternal soul utterly committed to self-sacrifice, existing solely to right all wrongs for a weaker, immature dependent, is unpalatable in a novel for adults. And then, this angel thing is just too much.
Kwan's benign power comes right out of trends in talk TV shows - along with the equally faddish notion that wearing "angel earrings" expresses some kind of meaningful concern about social issues. A contemporary sense of powerlessness in the face of complex problems has opened many doors to the purveyors of cheap spirituality - and in "The Hundred Secret Senses," Amy Tan marches right through all of them.
Anita Finkel is associate editor of Collier's Encyclopedia as well as editor and publisher of the New Dance Review. She has worked for Ballet News, Charles Scribner's Sons and Barron's.