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Saving Fish from Drowning

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San Francisco art patron Bibi Chen has planned a journey of the senses along the famed Burma Road for eleven lucky friends. But after her mysterious death, Bibi watches aghast from her ghostly perch as the travelers veer off her itinerary and embark on a trail paved with cultural gaffes and tribal curses, Buddhist illusions and romantic desires. On Christmas morning, the tourists cruise across a misty lake and disappear.

With picaresque characters and mesmerizing imagery, Saving Fish from Drowning gives us a voice as idiosyncratic, sharp, and affectionate as the mothers of The Joy Luck Club. Bibi is the observant eye of human nature–the witness of good intentions and bad outcomes, of desperate souls and those who wish to save them. In the end, Tan takes her readers to that place in their own heart where hope is found.

472 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2005

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About the author

Amy Tan

107 books9,549 followers
Amy Tan (Chinese: 譚恩美; pinyin: Tán Ēnměi; born February 19, 1952) is an American writer whose works explore mother-daughter relationships and what it means to grow up as a first generation Asian American. In 1993, Tan's adaptation of her most popular fiction work, The Joy Luck Club, became a commercially successful film.

She has written several other books, including The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, and The Bonesetter's Daughter, and a collection of non-fiction essays entitled The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings. Her most recent book, Saving Fish From Drowning, explores the tribulations experienced by a group of people who disappear while on an art expedition into the jungles of Burma. In addition, Tan has written two children's books: The Moon Lady (1992) and Sagwa, The Chinese Siamese Cat (1994), which was turned into an animated series airing on PBS. She has also appeared on PBS in a short spot on encouraging children to write.

Currently, she is the literary editor for West, Los Angeles Times' Sunday magazine.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,052 reviews
Profile Image for Kara.
128 reviews14 followers
June 21, 2007
I'm a huge fan of Amy Tan, and this book was a disappointment.
Saving Fish from Drowning was outside of her voice and style, and unlike her previous novels, it took me forever to get into it. I finally finished after forcing myself to do so.
Perhaps it's that I've come to expect her typical style that mixes magic, relationships, lessons learned and insight to Asian cultural. You could argue that Saving Fish from Drowning included those elements. However, I feel those pieces were not entwined into the same story, but secular themes in this novel. In addition the book was much longer than it need to be w/ details that were not pertinent to the conclusion.
Usually when I've finished a Tan book, I feel enlightened, or with a new perspective, or just happy I read the book. This story left me wondering what else I could have been reading instead.
I’m all about authors exploring new literary avenues. Unfortunately with this book, I feel the author left too much of herself behind in the process.
Still a loyal fan, I will absolutely be reading her next book.
Profile Image for Amy.
19 reviews
February 21, 2008
There is an anonymous quote in the preface that reads, "A pious man explained to his followers: "It is evil to take lives and noble to save them. Each day I pledge to save a hundred lives. I drop my net in the lake and scoop out a hundred fishes. I place the fishes on the bank, where they flop and twirl. "Don't be scared," I tell those fishes. "I am saving you from drowning." Soon enough, the fishes grow calm and lie still. Yet, sad to say, I am always too late. The fishes expire. And because it is evil to waste anything, I take those dead fishes to market and I sell them for a good price. With the money I receive, I buy more nets so I can save more fishes."

This book has been jostling around with me for the past year. I just couldn't settle down long enough to make my way into it. I am happy to have taken the swim, however, because Amy Tan never disappoints me. Never. She is an excellent story teller, and in this novel she has a way of suspending one's belief while expounding "ordinary" details about the story. I found myself thinking a few times, "Could that really happen?" Then I found myself just accepting things that I normally wouldn't - all in the name of being transported through fiction...one of my favorite things.

It deals much with morality, though some of you might not enjoy some of the characters' take on the subject. However, if you are interested in a tale involving a deceased narrator, appreciation for art, interpersonal relationships within a confined social group, an extended stay in the jungle of Burma where one is kidnapped without realizing it, and an extended commentary on the human rights abuses of the military junta in Burma (the junta have renamed it Myanmar, but with respect to the tale described in this book, let's all call it Burma, okay?)...consider it.
Profile Image for Mel.
107 reviews3 followers
September 27, 2014
Oh Good Lord! What an awful waste of time!

This was a torture to finish, but I was really holding out for an ending that would make the misery worth while. But nay - that was not to be the case.

Here was an opportunity for a dozen world travelers to have an adventure. And they may have had one, but it HAD to be more interesting than the telling we got from Amy. Even the sexual escapades were boring. How can that be? How were these people so boring AND so gullible?

The characters were not believeable, the plot was not believeable, the fact that none of them died of boredom was not believeable. Younger White Brother? Why not exploit that one a bit more.

I guess I should have known - another story told from the perspective of a ghost. I guess the dead but not crossed over just aren't very good story tellers.
105 reviews2 followers
February 18, 2009
I think I have read all of Amy Tan's books, but this one was completely different. To really understand it you have to believe that dead people can be channeled, and second you have to know a lot more about the history of Burma/ Myanmar than I do. I could never figure out if this was based on a real case, or whether it was based on a psychic's remembrances, or was just Amy sort of putting her readers on. However quirky and odd it is, and however she came up with the idea for the novel, I enjoyed it!

On some levels it is a travelogue, and in some ways it is a column in Conde Nast Traveller telling about how a trip can go wrong. In some ways it is a mystery, and in some ways it reminds you of Barbara Kingsolver's "The Poisonwood Bible". It just doesn't fit smoothly into any one category, not even the category of Amy Tan novels. I would love to get other readers' "take" on it. This is a novel for someone who wants to read something very different than what he or she usually reads.
Profile Image for Ellen.
131 reviews9 followers
March 10, 2009
From reading the back cover of this book, I expected something like The Poisonwood Bible. Some of the elements are similar: group of Americans visit third world country, spend time with the natives, have their preconceptions shattered through hardship and numerous misunderstandings. But this book was unsettlingly lighthearted. I think that Amy Tan was trying to write a book that treats the reader as a tourist, as someone who seeks a story that is exotic and adventurous without being too disturbing. At one point the narrator discusses the difficulty of writing a book about the troubled world of Burma that will actually appeal to readers. Just as tourists hear about the atrocities committed by the military government and then forget about them in an isolated resort, readers hear horrible tales of murder and torture, only to have them buried in silly scenes like the visit to the temple in China, where the tourists conduct themselves in with shockingly bad behavior. It's an interesting idea, but it didn't work for me. The combination of tragedy and farce was too jarring.

The book was narrated by a ghost who had insight into everyone's thoughts and feelings. I did enjoy this aspect of the book. Although the characters were often irritating and self-centered, I felt that they were fairly real. Who wouldn't look a bit more ugly and self-important if presented through their private thoughts, rather than their more careful, calculated actions?
Profile Image for Cindy Knoke.
110 reviews66 followers
July 27, 2012
I read this book a long time ago and should have written this review a long time ago.
What a wonder this book is!
Having read all of Amy Tan’s books, I expected good writing, serious cultural and gender themes, and disturbing realities.
What I did not expect was this book.
It is side splittingly, laugh out-loud, hilarious!
You get the usual significant wit, wisdom and writing chomps of Amy Tan, along with Swiftian satire, that is stand up comedian funny. Think Robin Williams relaxed.
Every bit of this book is entertaining. The first half most so, where the scene is set: The San Francisco cultural elite, hook up with a famous British dog trainer, and other assorted perfectly spoofed politically correct characters, to go on an “authentic travel experience” to Burma.
The San Francisco, Chinese, female, opera-loving main character is dead, but don’t worry, she is still the main character, and she took good care of her dog “poochini” in her will.
I loved the “wind instrument symphony” in the hotel the most.
If you want to have fun, read this book.
Profile Image for Catherine.
1,150 reviews64 followers
August 27, 2014
I put off reading this book for a long time because of the horrible reviews. I can see some of the reviewers points, but overall, I really enjoyed this novel.

This is definitely a departure from Tan's normal novels about the relationships between Chinese-born mothers and their Chinese-American daughters. Although she does a wonderful job capturing the dynamics of those relationships, while weaving in fascinating glimpses of Chinese history, I'm glad to see her trying something new.

A few of the characters in this novel are Chinese, but the majority are not. One of the criticisms I have read is that she has too many prominent characters and therefore spreads her character development too thin. I agree somewhat, but beyond the narrator, the recently deceased, but always bigger than life Bibi Chen, the plot is more important.

Plot-wise, this is also a huge change for Tan. This is an adventure novel which ventures into the land of magical realism. This begins with the idea that Bibi's spirit is following her friends on the trip through China and Burma that she was supposed to lead.

Thrown into the mix is a glimpse of life in the military regime of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

Overall, this was a great read, which I found to be relatively quick, despite it's healthy length.
Profile Image for Camilla.
204 reviews5 followers
March 4, 2009
It took me awhile to read this novel. Each paragraph holds thoughtful meanings and insight that aren't quickly digested but gradually enjoyed. Human nature, what we are about, what I do and why I do what I do, are some things stirred up. I love all of Amy Tan's writing. Her history of China is right there with Buck's The Good Earth. I would ask one thing of her. To keep writing novels.
Profile Image for Sammy.
207 reviews866 followers
August 4, 2007
Unlike others who have read all of Tan's books, I have only had the pleasure of reading The Joy Luck Club. Just going off that book I found Saving Fish from Drowning to be quite different.

While it held true to Tan's brilliant, rich way of writing and continued her analysis of human nature and relationships, she seemed to step outside of her usual comfort zone and the whole tone of the book took on that of a political adventure. One thing that was particularly unique and enjoyable was our narrator. She was an actual character but having died before the story began gave her an omniscience that allowed the reader to see past the first person perspective.

The book was slow to start and there were so many characters that any time to get to know and bond with them never happened. Also, with the exception of Bibi, most of the characters were two demensional at best. That could have been remedied by allowing the reader more time to get to know the characters better.

Really, with all that being said, I think that's the extent of my review. I did like the book but I don't think it garnered any more praise or reflection than what I've given. A good book and from what I've heard from others it was a departure from Tan's usual writings of Chinese-American mother-daughter relationships. So if you like Tan's writing but want something different from her usual style you got it here. If you've never read any Amy Tan, though, starting with this book may give you a wrong (and disappointing) first impression.
Profile Image for Susan.
125 reviews
October 3, 2012
This was a book club selection that I was NOT going to read. I read The Joy Luck Club a few years back & didn't care for it at all, so reading another Amy Tan book was not on the top of my list. But the back of Saving Fish had a review by Isabelle Allende, whom I adore. I decided to read 30 pages because I couldn't imagine Isabelle steering me wrong. If I hated it (which I figured would be the case) I would quit the book. Well, I enjoyed Saving Fish immensely. My favorite books transport me to places I will likely never see & this book did just that. At the beginning I had issue with remembering all the characters, but I didn't care because the story was so compelling. My only complaint is that the last chapter was a little choppy & didn't flow as well as the rest of the book. It seemed like a VH1 Where Are They Now episode. Other than that, I'm an Amy Tan convert, thanks to Isabelle Allende.
Profile Image for Hildred Billings.
Author 117 books221 followers
April 7, 2013
Well, it only took two months, but I finished "Saving Fish From Drowning," the final Amy Tan novel. And one of my favorites.

So why did it take me so long to finish reading this a second time? To the point where I lost ALL WILL to read at all for two months?

Because this is a thick, slogging book of intensity.

"Fish" is not an easy read. Oh, sure on a micro level it is. There's not too many hard ideas and certainly no difficult words or sentences to trod through, but on a macro scale it's brain sucking mind-number.

The approach and basic gist of the story is simple: 12 American tourists, all immensely spoiled and unrepentantly Western go on a Christmas visit to southern China followed by Myanmar. During this trip they create every foreigner faux pas possibly, from peeing on fertility goddesses to getting mixed up with junta. (And a side of every sickness under the sun.) Eventually, they are absconded by a hidden Karen tribe that are convinced the young boy in their group is the second coming of The Younger White Brother, who will save them from the oppressive regime of Myanmar's militaristic government.

Sounds a bit...bizarre? It is. Because the tribe is convinced they are going to be saved by getting a hit reality show on American TV.

"Saving Fish From Drowning" is not the usual Amy Tan fare. And for that, I'm glad. There is a hint of the usual Chinese mother-daughter theme here, but overall it is a long, winding tale of American superiority clashing with Southeast Asian sensibilities. The thing that makes it really unique, both for Tan and modern literature as a whole, is the narration style. You see, the book is narrated by a ghost. Not just any ghost. An omniscient ghost, who can go into anyone's head at any moment. With over 12 characters, that comes in pretty handy.

Our beloved narrator is Bibi Chen, a recently perished art critic who was the original organizer for our Americans' Asian trip. Due to her untimely death (the circumstances of which remain a mystery until the end) the trip is handed off to one of the 12, who is, of course, completely in over his head. Nothing on the trip goes right from the beginning, and in the end, Bibi the ghost (who cannot communicate with the living world at all, only watch and report) is the only one who knows what's going on with either side. It's almost a comedy of errors. I say almost, because the comedy style is very dry and sarcastic (and sometimes downright black and bleak) while the errors could have easily been avoided to the point where you want to roll your eyes.

The biggest fault of this story comes with the narration style. It's very hard to do omniscient well, especially when it's very tempting to go into every single head and report for pages on end about what people are doing. I'm afraid Tan does fall into this trap. This story could've easily been cut down. But I do not feel that the extra length is a detriment to the overall story. Nor do I feel that this story falls into the Western Savior trap with the 12 Americans "saving" the oppressed Karen tribe. Because really, the Americans just make everything worse. Everywhere they go. From my own American point of view, I found this hilarious, especially as someone who has lived in Asia and seen American superiority ruin the most mundane things. And without giving too much away, the Americans don't really "save" the Karen tribe. But that's another thing I love about this story. The ending is not happy, nor it is "hopeful" or "tragic." It's just real. Some characters discover new points of of views in their lives, and others are completely ruined. Tan's dry way of pointing out rational American thinking is on point as usual.

As I mentioned above, this is not an "easy" read, unless you have a lot of time to kill. It's fairly time consuming. But it's a great read, full of hilarious scenarios and scenes full of so much second hand embarrassment you want to crawl beneath your bed covers and pretend you're not American (if you are.) Meanwhile, you will also be treated to amazing imagery, shockingly real dialogue, and, as they say, a whole lotta heart. Amy Tan outdoes herself in this book. But don't come into it expecting another Joy Luck Club. Come into it expecting a large, multi-layered story about the human condition's ability to have too much hope for its own good.
Profile Image for Pam.
89 reviews
March 16, 2008
I have waited awhile to post about this book because I like Amy Tan so much that I was hoping that the story would continue to resonate and lead me to learn that I liked the book more than I thought I had...no such luck.

There are many smart devices in the book and I continue to like and enjoy Amy Tan's voice - but I never got to the point where I cared so much about many of the characters in this book - although some were memorable.

I did discover while I was waiting that my visual image of Bibi Chen matched nearly exactly that of Edna Mode - the SuperHero clothes designer in "The Incredibles". Bibi is a great character and I am glad that the mystery of her demise was tidied up by the end of the book.

I was also amused by the series of miracles that occured at the "Lajamee" camp - and liked the manipulation of the American tourists (those who believe that if you wish to make a difference - you can) It is a wonderful American quality that I hope I subscribe to myself - but it can lead to a lot of naivete as well.

I did have to check into whether Bibi and the 11 missing tourists existed ("I'm fairly tuned into world news - wouldn't I remember?"). NPR set me straight.

Profile Image for Book Concierge.
2,733 reviews327 followers
November 9, 2016
From the book jacket Twelve American tourists join an art expedition that begins in the Himalayan foothills of China and heads south into the jungles of Burma. But after the mysterious death of their tour leader, the carefully laid plans fall apart and disharmony breaks out among the pleasure-seekers as they come to discover that the Burma Road is paved with less-than-honorable intentions, questionable food, and tribal curses. And then, on Christmas morning, eleven of the travelers boat across a misty lake for a sunrise cruise – and disappear.

My reactions
I like Tan’s writing. She has the ability to plop me right into the middle of a completely different culture. This story, narrated by the ghost of Bibi Chen (the group’s recently deceased tour guide), has some elements of magical realism. Tan deftly explores the ways in which American tourists make “innocent” mistakes that have significant consequences.

Some of the characters were irritating because of their know-it-all attitude; others (especially the two youngsters) were petulant and bored. They ignored advice and warnings, made little effort to truly understand the culture, and took unnecessary risks. Their unreasonable expectations drove me crazy and made me cringe for the impression they left on the locals they encountered. And yet … by the end they seemed genuinely moved by the generosity and kindness of the people, and were eager to help (if misguided in their efforts).

At 474 pages, this is longer than it needs to be. I got the point long before the tourists did, and I think a good editor might have helped Tan trim about 100 pages. Still, I enjoyed it and was entertained throughout.

Tan narrates the audio version herself. She really personified Bibi, and I felt as though I were hearing a tall tale directly from the character. A few of her attempts at Australian or Swiss/German or British accents went rather awry, but, again, it was as if Bibi Chen were telling the story and trying to add color to the tale so I forgave Tan.
Profile Image for A.K. Kulshreshth.
Author 7 books54 followers
January 21, 2022
For readers who can accept a ghost narrator, this is a great mix of travelogue, drama and social commentary. Arguably, there's a murder mystery as well, but that is the weakest link.

It's clear that readers have been polarised, most likely by the ghost narrator or what they expected based on other Amy Tan books. For me, this was the first one of hers that I read, and ghosts are quite all right.

On the other hand, it's probably true that there's a lot packed into this story -- there's stuff about relationships, the art world, Chinese history and present society, and most of all quite a bit about Myanmar. It might even be too much, but I tought Ms. Tan mixed it all pretty well.

The book is set before the opening up of Myanmar which led to it being labelled at "the new frontier" for economic investment in around 2015. Sadly, the country took a turn for the worse with the Rohingya genocide, and then another one with the abandonment of democratic pretences.

Saving Fish From Drowning does justice to the moral complexity of whether it was right for "the West" to engage with Myanmar before its opening up and it's "re-positioning" (which has now, of course, gone down the drain).

What I found outstanding was Bibi Chen's voice, which gives the book a entertaiment "coating" even as it touches on topics that could be depressing, including some horrific human rights abuses.

I also liked the interactions between the twelve travellers, and a dog, but I have to say that if ever there was a book that needs a cast of characters and doesn't have one, this is it.

Highly recommended, or not at all -- depending on your tastes.

Profile Image for Q .
429 reviews
February 25, 2023
Read this years ago when it came out. I had enjoyed Amy Tan’s Books a lot.This one didn’t sing to me at alI. She didn’t seem to catch her flow.
Profile Image for Doug.
84 reviews54 followers
April 7, 2018
Amy Tan's Saving Fish from Drowning is the first Tan book I've ever had the pleasure of reading, and it's safe to say it will most certainly not be the last. At times dreamy, at times direct and to the point, Tan's surreal and harrowing tale of adventure oftentimes seems almost to enter the realm of magical realism. I must say that this book was one of the most effortless reads I have ever dived into - not once did I ever find myself having to glance back a page or pause to figure out what was happening. I don't think I've ever read an author whose style was so graceful and gentle. That isn't to say, of course, that Tan's book is simple - it's a complex adventure tale full of myth and cultural insight - but Amy Tan's writing style makes a story as full of complexity as this one much, much easier to read and enjoy.

The narrator of the story is a now-dead woman named Bibi Chen, who has apparently resurrected from her death in spirit form as she now follows a group of her friends as they embark on a vacation to China and, later on, Burma. Apparently Bibi had planned the entire trip for them before her untimely death, and the friends decide to carry on and go on the trip despite their dear friend’s passing. Saving Fish from Drowning is heartwarming and simple, while also touching on a plethora of cultural and political issues surrounding life in Asia and specifically Myanmar/Burma. Bibi’s friends find themselves lost and stuck in the jungle eventually with an isolated and persecuted tribe, and Amy Tan gives us the viewpoints of all the travelers, courtesy of the narration of the dead Bibi Chen. It’s a clever method of narration that allows Tan to give us a multitude of perspectives without coming off as cheap or lazy. A subtle and witty undercurrent of satire and humor permeates the book as well - Tan clearly takes advantage of the rich trust-fund characters who make up the group of travelers in the story. While at first I found the end of the book a little on the anti-climactic side, and some readers might find themselves feeling disappointed, in retrospect isn’t real life usually anti-climactic in its own humorous way? I think this is the message that Tan wants the reader to understand - even on a journey of mythical proportions in the deepest jungles, sometimes the greatest surprise in life is found in the simple things. And sometimes, there is no surprise at all, only our own musings and memories of the journey. Saving Fish from Drowning conveys this message masterfully, all in the simple and elegant prose found in Tan’s tale of wonder and adventure.
Profile Image for Jenny Shank.
Author 3 books67 followers
November 29, 2010

Author Tan back in the swim
'Fish' departs from Chinese-American tales, features Chaucer spin
Jenny Shank, Special to the News
Published October 28, 2005 at midnight

Amy Tan's last book, 2003's nonfiction collection The Opposite of Fate, closed with an essay about her struggle with Lyme disease. Tan described increasingly alarming symptoms, including joint pain, difficulty with organization, and visual hallucinations, and she left her fans with a cliff hanger: When she wrote that essay, it wasn't clear if she'd ever be able to write another novel.

With the publication of her new novel, Saving Fish from Drowning (her first since 2001's The Bonesetter's Daughter), Tan's admirers can breathe easy.

In a phone interview from her San Francisco home, Tan said that during the worst days of her illness, "It's like pieces of my brain were sand, just rolling out, and I felt I was trying to gather the sand before it completely leaked out."

She worried that she'd never be able to complete another book, but added, "What's kind of strange, however, is that you feel apathetic. I would be anxious about my not being able to think that well and work, but on the other hand, I didn't have the energy to fight it that much."

You might think that once Tan was finally diagnosed and began to improve, she would go easy on herself and tell a simple story, but shirking a challenge has never been her approach. Saving Fish from Drowning is a sprawling, 500-page tale with more than a dozen main characters and just as many plot lines. The book marks a departure for the author, as it's the first of her novels that doesn't largely focus on Chinese and Chinese-American characters and mother-daughter themes.

Instead, it tells the story of a group of 12 Americans of different ages, genders and ethnicities on a trip in China and Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), who end up trapped in the jungle village of a persecuted minority tribe.

A touch of the familiar Tan comes through in the voice of the deceased narrator, the dynamic Bibi Chen, a San Francisco art maven whose mysterious murder begins the tale. Chen is fictional, and all of the events in the novel are likewise products of Tan's imagination, but Tan's playful approach with the book's opening might leave some readers unsure.

In "A Note To The Reader," Tan describes an unusual event that sparked the book's creation. Caught in the rain in Manhattan, she writes, she ducked into a building called the "American Society for Psychical Research," where she found the "automatic writings" that a California woman claimed had been dictated to her by the spirit of Bibi Chen.

This tale sounds far-fetched enough for fiction, but anyone who has read The Opposite of Fate, replete with tales of bizarre spiritual occurrences in Tan's life, is primed to believe the author's reports of strange coincidences and ghosts.

"I wanted to start this book off with everything in there being a question of what's true and what's not true," Tan said. "So, for example, in the epigraph, you have something that was said by Camus that was truly something he said, and then you have a quote attributed to anonymous which was actually written by me."

Similarly, although there is a real American Society for Psychical Research, it contains no automatic writing that Tan used directly for the novel. When Tan visited the Society, she said, "there were files on automatic writing and I thought, 'Wouldn't it be great if a whole book were just sitting right there for me and I could just take it home and copy it?' So that part was made up, and the whole thing about Bibi Chen - that wasn't anybody that ever existed . . ."

"But the strange thing is," Tan continued, "I had a friend read this book early on, and he said, 'It's great that you actually knew this woman and that this all took place in your home town.' And I said, 'What are you talking about?' And he said, 'Well, you knew Bibi.' And I said, 'Bibi? You think she's real?' And he said, 'Well yes, of course.' And I said, 'Do you remember a story about a woman who was murdered in San Francisco who was really well known?' " said Tan, referring to her fictional backstory for Bibi Chen. "And he goes, 'Yeah, I think I do.' "

While Tan fashioned the book after Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, centered on 12 people who go on a journey, she also wanted to include her deceased mother in the story.

"I had just lost her just a few months before I finished The Bonesetter's Daughter, and suddenly I realized at the end of it that it wasn't that I had to write another mother-daughter story, but that my mother - her voice - could be the narrator. She could be the dead narrator, the dead travel guide, and she could have all that humor and wry observation and feistiness that my mother had and she could come along on the trip."

Although Tan wrote with the Canterbury Tales in mind, one of the few detectable traces of this influence is in the name of one character, Harry Bailley, who was the innkeeper in Chaucer's tales and surfaces as "a British-born celebrity dog trainer" in Tan's novel. "I don't think most people would catch that," Tan said. "These are little things that are more like postcards to myself. "

Another Chaucer-like touch is the humorous tone of Tan's novel: Although it begins with a murder and includes a host of misfortunes, the book is a fun read, and the overall effect is comic. Tan said the choice to leaven some of the serious underlying issues of the book - which touches on questions of human rights in Myanmar - was a conscious one.

"It's a comic novel because I wanted to address something that was very serious, something that disturbed me that was about morality and ignorance and intentions and about a situation in the world that is very, very sad," Tan said. "And the only way that I felt that I could approach it was with humor. Humor to me is a way of opening yourself up. . . you're not approaching a subject with extreme reverence that makes the complete picture impossible to see. With humor you just sort of shake loose everything that is in you and when you're opened up you can confront what is darker and harder to look at."

Much of this humor is conveyed through Bibi Chen's wry narration. Chen, who was supposed to be the group's tour guide before her murder, instead serves as a ghostly guide, keeping readers entertained with observations such as: "Throughout history, many a world leader was injudiciously influenced by his malfunctioning bladder, bowels, and other private parts. Didn't Napoleon lose at Waterloo because he couldn't sit in a saddle, on account of hemorrhoids?"

Saving Fish from Drowning is in large part a rollicking travel narrative, and Tan does a masterful job of capturing the unease Americans feel when traveling in countries where they don't understand the language, especially at border crossings and passport checks where scowling, armed officials often engage in "ten minutes of inspecting and stamping and huffing with authority."

Tan teases the reader with such scenes, by having Bibi state right away that the trip is going to go awry. But true to the book's comic tone, some of Bibi's most ominous foreshadowing presages a group bout of traveler's diarrhea. Tan said she included this event partly for "verisimilitude."

"I was recently going into the interior of China, and you're on a bus being jostled about for eight hours a day, bumping up and down and knocking your head into the window, and there were people having diarrhea. There's never been a trip I've been on that somebody did not have a problem like that. For me that just had to be in there because it would have been unrealistic to have nobody get sick."

Suspense builds throughout the book as the reader wonders what is going to become of these bumbling, very American travelers. Tan "wanted to bring the story to a point that I knew was going to be very uncomfortable," she said. "As they go further on this journey, they're going to encounter deeper and deeper moral issues for themselves," and become increasingly unsettled by the country's repressive regime.

With all of the confusion, cultural missteps, and ominous signs throughout the novel, the ending may surprise some readers. "What I hoped to get across is that we simply left the story off at a certain part of their (the characters') lives that is to me on some scale of happiness, probably right there about in the middle, and you don't know for certain which way their lives are going to go."

As for Tan's life, a year and a half ago she embarked on a project with the composer Stuart Wallace to reinterpret The Bonesetter's Daughter as an American opera. She estimates the opera will premier in 2008.

"What I've learned from all of it is that you cannot translate an original work to another form, to another medium. You have to really take it all apart and pare it down to literally its bones and then recast it and recreate it with the bones in a different configuration and give it its own life."

Tan is clearly back on her feet and making up for lost time. "I went through quite a period of struggle there," she admits, "and it really just took finally getting treatment so that my brain could come back. It was literally as though the fog had cleared when finally I started getting better."
Profile Image for Melissa Stacy.
Author 5 books196 followers
August 11, 2020
DNF on page 66 (of 472 pages total)

Amy Tan's 2005 novel, "Saving Fish from Drowning," has been sitting on my bookshelf for years, and I finally picked it up tonight to give it a go.

But there is *nothing* appealing to me in this book. The main character, a middle-aged woman named Bibi, is already dead on page one, narrating the story as a ghost, and since Bibi is largely emotionless, dully unflappable and irreverent about her own murder, there are *zero* narrative stakes in the book. Bibi makes it clear that she is in need of nothing and wants nothing, as a ghost or when she was alive. Then she goes into pages upon pages of her own ancient backstory, before introducing a dozen other characters with pages upon pages of their individual backstories. At page 66, I'm still reading backstory, waiting for the plot to appear.

Regarding all of this exposition, everything is either super boring, super gross, or a combination of the two. The characters are all upper-middle class or upper-class art lovers and travelers, and while that ought to be fascinating, the character details all center on their mundane lives, sexual dysfunction, body shaming, and other details that you would associate with self-loathing literary fiction set in suburban America.

The promise of international travel and a foreign setting just isn't panning out for me here. Reading this book just feels like pointless suffering. I'm putting it down.

Two stars. Not for me.
2 reviews1 follower
February 4, 2009
this is the first book i read the intro, and i am glad i did. the author was wandering in nyc when rain forced her to seek refuge in the American Psychical Institute. there she found a volume on "automatic writing," in which there was a factual decription of a woman who was experiencing auto writing from a woman Bibi Chen. Bibi Chen was not an imagined person - she was an actual person that Amy Tan knew. The writings are further authenticated because the subject matter was the recent disappearance of 11 american tourists in Burma. The book is Amy Tan's embellished, fictional account of Bibi's ghost writings. The 11 characters are a varied, interesting, imperfect bunch, and Tan's elaborate description of their humorous, often frightening encounters is engaging. The 12th equally interesting character is Tan's description of their surroundings in China and Myanmar (Burma) - the landscape, the people, the superstitions, and the traditions.
I am currently at the turning point in the book and can't wait to finish...
Profile Image for Labi.
123 reviews45 followers
September 8, 2020
2.5 stars

This book partly isn't my cup of tea & partly it's tedious. I couldn't really get into the story or any of the characters. The first half of the book is very slow and it took me a long time to read it, the second half is a little better, more interesting.
Profile Image for Larry Bassett.
1,395 reviews290 followers
September 2, 2020
I listened to this audio CD as I drove from home in central Virginia to visit my Dad in southeastern Michigan. I missed one turn in Ohio due to distracted driving and decided that this is not the best way to experience a book. I did find some humor and satire in the listening but think that I will still keep the actual book on my shelf to read one day. I had some special interest in the book when I realized that its setting is in Burma, a country much in the news recently. The book was published in 2005, thus preceding the election of 2010 that nominally replaced the longstanding military dictatorship. This CD version is noted as Abridged and read by the author, Amy Tan.

The second time through. This time listening to the unabridged audible book read by the author and following along with the Kindle e-book.

This is a slightly confusing book to me. There were multiple main characters in the book and most of them were given some individual opportunity to shine. But for me I thought the main character was Burma/Myanmar. It was something of a lengthy tour book interrupted by a good deal of detail that was not at all appropriate for a tour book. The book was published in 2005 and since it is now 15 years later, I am not sure how valid the massive derogatory impression of the host country remains.

A group of 12 tourists Who have some prior experience with each other head off on a venture to Burma. A key factor is that their tour guide died somewhat mysteriously just before the tour but accompanies them in a spirit/ghost format and is the primary narrator of the book. So this is indeed a unique approach to storytelling. If somehow allows her to not only narrate the story but to be able to see the interior motivation of the characters as the action moves forward.

The story is interesting in many ways but hardly exciting. The dives into the depth of individual characters mostly did not leave me with a sense of understanding or appreciation. The story of the indigenous people Who lived hiding in the jungle for fear of the despots ruling the country is probably the most interesting aspect of the book from my point of view. There is a bit of the notion of the standard ugly Americans. In this case the author tries to soften their ugliness a bit by trying to let us know that they are occasionally trying to do the best they can in spite of their obvious first worldness in the third world.

From what I can recall I am sometimes attracted by Amy Tan’s writing skill and sometimes not. This was one of the occasions where the not seemed to dominate. There was a certain amount of enjoyable comedy and humor. I did not find the all seeing narrator especially distracting. But the concluding paragraphs explaining her mysterious death I found uncompelling and failed to grasp its significance. I could tell it was supposed to be significant but I just didn’t care enough to try to figure it out. That was generally my feeling about the last hour of the book which might have normally been called the epilogue and was the effort to tie up the details of all the characters I have spent mostly not caring that much about.

As I conclude this review I see that I would probably honestly give this book 2 1/2 stars rather than three. But I think I have already said enough to suggest that I simply was not carried away with this book although I think I did understand it better than the first time when I Listened to a shortened CD version.
Profile Image for Rusalka.
374 reviews112 followers
June 14, 2013
I wish this novel lived up to it's name. Instead of Saving Fish from Drowning as it claimed, this story slowly suffocated. Amy Tan let it flip flop all over the place in front of you, and then, when you thought it couldn't possibly still be alive, it would spring up and kinda flop over again.

The story is apparently about a woman called Bibi (which is a ridiculous name... no offence to any one reading called Bibi, you can't help your parents). She's dead. That's not a spoiler, it happens on page one. She's self obsessed, incredibly learned and cultured. And she's haunting her friends who are going on a holiday she organised. She sucks at haunting though as she just kinda follows them around like annoying small animal. But one you don't notice.

So you follow her friends around, after you get through 50 pages about her funeral. Which you don't care about as you don't like her. And her friends are awful, stereotypical travelling Americans. They are the people that walk into your hotel breakfast and you shudder with embarrassment as you feel terrible for being white as people may think you're from the same country, or worse, family.

I'm sorry. It's true. American's have the stereotype of being obnoxious, loud and ignorant while travelling. With the Brit's, they look down their nose at *everything*. Australians have the stereotype of being constantly drunk and obnoxious. You learn to work with it, and prove you are the exception.

Anyways. These are people you do not want to be around. All of them. Dead fish people or alive people. So after 100 pages, they got abandoned. And I hate myself a little for it. But after 100 pages, you had a good shot, and I couldn't see it getting better.

Also, I should have been warned when I found out that Amy Tan made up some stupid story about the book coming out of automatic writings she stumbled across in some Psychic Museum. So this was a "real story" told to a "real psychic". While my personal bullshit meter was going into overdrive, I then learnt that she made up this story to get more interest in the book. If you have to make up some story about automatic writings and psychics to sell your book, that should scream that it's not worth reading. Next time, I listen to that meter.

The problem is now, I don't know what to do with my journey. I think I have to find another South East Asian story, as I already felt my SE Asian pickings were rather slim. And for that, I am, just frankly, annoyed. Ruining my list *mumble mumble mumble*.

For more reviews visit http://rusalkii.blogspot.com.au/
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,988 reviews15 followers
September 12, 2016
Description: San Francisco art patron Bibi Chen has planned a journey of the senses along the farmed Burma Road for eleven lucky friends. But after her mysterious death, Bibi watches aghast from her ghostly perch as the travelers veer off her itinerary and embark on a trail paved with cultural gaffes and tribal curses, Buddhist illusions and romantic desires. On Christmas morning, the tourists cruise across a misty lake and disappear.

With picaresque characters and mesmerizing imagery, Saving Fish from Drowning gives us a voice as idiosyncratic, sharp, and affectionate as the mothers of the Joy Luck Club, Bibi is the observant eye of human nature- the witness of good intentions and bad outcomes, of desperate souls and those who wish to save themselves. In the end, Tan takes her readers to that place in their own heart where hope is found.

Profile Image for La Tonya  Jordan.
283 reviews89 followers
March 22, 2015
This was an intelligently written first novel. The characters were strange and plus several of the characters you could not get a sense for until the end. The journey described was full of various adventures which left the reader wondering what is going on. But, the writing was superb.

Life Lesson: We all must find our place in life for God to take over.

38 reviews1 follower
July 7, 2022
almost gave up on this book a few times because it DID take well over half of these almost 500 pages to just set up the mystery/drama and cut to the chase which is a few hundred too many in my opinion. but thank god for the sunk cost fallacy! (for i am easily deceived.)

the setting is pretty unique and the motley crew of characters was fun but i never got too attached to any of them, perhaps because 11 is too many to keep track of? though i suppose by the end i did feel some affinity for some of these silly people. the women at least. the men were all annoying (typical).

once it did escalate it did so to a suitable level and i was quite pleased! second half was quite interesting and a solid 5/5 to outweigh the first half's dismal 2 ish /5. i do enjoy a manufactured international crisis and an imperfect denouement.

blurbs led me to believe i would learn some deep lessons in human nature which i guess i did find? but not till the last fifty pages or so. patience was certainly one lesson learned. some other themes included but were not limited to: fortune, humanitarianism, americans mucking stuff up abroad, cosmic karma, spirituality, love affairs (realistic and satisfying and unsatisfying), the supernatural, etc.

also this has one of the best readers' guides at the end i've ever seen and also was superbly researched. maybe amy tan's style is just not for me though im not totally sure
Profile Image for Carissa.
703 reviews8 followers
April 26, 2008
i listened to this on audio, read by the author. i love amy tan, but they really should have found a professional reader. ms. tan has several different characters with british or australian accents and her accents are all over the place and very distracting. that being said, the book was enjoyable. i felt like the ending dragged on a bit long (you know how most of the time, when you’re done reading a book , you sit back and wonder, “and then what? what happens next? well, you don’t have to wonder in this book. she spends the last disc and a half explaining what happens to each character for pretty much the remainder of their lives. it was much less satisfying than i’d ever thought it might be.) but during the book itself, i thought she did a marvelous job of portraying very real characters traveling in a very foreign country. these were not your stereotypical tourists–they were prepared for eventualities, they felt that they were open-minded and conscientious, but every time that a character would do something or react in a way that i recognized as what i would have done myself in that situation, the author points out how misguided or mistaken the character was. she also did an excellent job of portraying how easily serious miscommunication can happen when the language barrier exists (especially when there are basic differences in the ways societies operate). not only was it an entertaining read, i also felt like i might have gained insights into an unfamiliar culture and become more aware of pitfalls that can happen when you assume that everyone comes from a similar background to you. even parts of your “background” that you take for granted or maybe don’t even realize that exist.
Profile Image for Linda   Branham.
1,799 reviews30 followers
February 27, 2013
I've read several reviews of this book and people seem to either love it or hate it
I loved it
The characters are full and believable - I feel as if I have known them all for years
Ms. Tan chooses as her storyteller the ghost of Bibi Chen,a wealthy art patron, who has just met an untimely and violent death. Bibi had already organized an art and culture tour for a number of her longtime friends that had planned to follow the fabled Burma Road from Lijiang in southwestern China (claimed by some to be the inspiration for Shangri-La) across the closed border into Myanmar. Despite Bibi's death, her friends decide to follow her itinerary with a new (and unbeknown to them, a completely inexperienced guide, Bennie.
A series of misadventures and misunderstandings plague their trip, most of which the omniscient Bibi-ghost is powerless to prevent, but the group eventually crosses the border with Bibi's mysterious help. Once in Myanmar, more misunderstandings occur and the twelve travelers find themselves unknowingly involved with members of a Burmese minority group called the Karen. All but one of Bibi's group disappear into the deep jungle on what they believe is a Christmas surprise part of their tour, but the rest of the world believes they have either been lost, killed, or kidnapped by anti-government insurgents.
I won't tell the rest or it would spoil the story for you
Profile Image for Florence.
807 reviews10 followers
October 30, 2017
Wow. I purchased this book at our library used book sale for one dollar and it gave me such pleasure to read it. Amy Tan's pages are filled with quirky people, exotic adventures, nail-biting suspense. She seems fascinated by the clash of cultures in the hinterlands of Asia. We follow a group of American travelers from China to Burma where they fall into a cultural abyss that takes them back a century in time. Initially the Americans are concerned with their creature comforts - what is for dinner, will the accommodations be adequate. They are oblivious to hardship, want, and need of the local tribespeople. Military and civilian authorities of Burma have committed murderous acts that reverberate through its victims lives for generations, and introduce the tourists to a new reality. Our narrator has an omniscient view of the entire sphere of activity and a lively sense of humor. She adds spice to the story.
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