Saving Fish from Drowning by Amy Tan

By Ekta R. Garg

May 27, 2011

Rated: Borrow it

I’ve never read any of Amy Tan’s work, although I certainly know of her.  I remember the stir Tan caused when The Joy Luck Club released as a book and then later as a movie.  I didn’t understand at the time my own draw to writing culturally relevant stories or even what my culture would mean to my writing, but Tan’s subject matter intrigued me.  At some point I decided The Joy Luck Club might be a good book to read.

Unfortunately I never got around to reading The Joy Luck Club.  That doesn’t mean I won’t, but somehow through these many years I just haven’t gotten to it.  So when I spotted Tan’s most recent work, Saving Fish from Drowning, in Barnes and Noble—on sale, no less, for about $3.50—I thought it might be worth a risk.  I’m usually picky about the books I buy, wanting to invest only in those I can re-read.  But something about the story caught my attention, and I picked it up.

Saving Fish from Drowning is told in first person from the point of view of Bibi Chen, an art curator and tour guide living in San Francisco.  At the beginning of the book Bibi dies, and her death can’t come at a more inopportune time for a group of 12 people for whom she was going to act as tour guide through China and Burma during the Christmas holidays.  After Bibi’s funeral, the group decides to pursue their trip anyway and hires one of Chen’s colleagues to lead them in her stead.  That, according to Bibi, is the beginning of all their troubles.

Early into their trip, several group members decide to ignore key points of the itinerary Bibi so meticulously put together and try to improvise their own experience.  The trip, predictably, begins to swerve wildly off course and includes an abduction of the entire group (minus one) when a local Burmese tribe becomes convinced that one of the travelers is their savior reincarnated.  The tribe members are fairly harmless, not wanting to put their Chosen One in any danger, but temporary panic ensues back home in the States and across the world when it’s discovered the group is missing.  In the meantime the group members realize the mistake made by the tribe, and they decide to do what they can to help.  While their mission is admirable, it doesn’t exactly yield the desired results.

Bibi’s commentary is witty in parts and quite astute in others.  Through her Tan provides us with an insightful look at various political affairs; she isn’t afraid to call a spade what it is, and she gives us enough details on the characters to make us wonder more about them.

Unfortunately there are so many details—because there are so many characters—that despite being interesting, the characters drag the story down in parts.  With 12 characters, although Tan artfully reminds us several times of each character’s quirks, it can be challenging to keep track of everyone.  The result is that not everyone gets his or her fair share of “screen time,” and certainly not all of the characters can be major players in their various experiences.

Also, while Tan’s work exudes the maturity and depth millions of fans have come to expect from her, the story itself is fairly simplistic and even somewhat predictable in parts.  Tan’s prose makes one pause in appreciation of it, but her story leaves something to be desired.  Other fans have also complained that this book didn’t quite measure up to her previous works.

Plot letdowns aside, I enjoyed Tan’s writing style thoroughly and after reading Saving Fish from Drowning I have more incentive to read The Joy Luck Club (or other works by her, including The Bonesetter’s Daughter.)  For anyone who wants the chance to appreciate Amy Tan’s writing, Saving Fish from Drowning is a good pick.  But for something with more depth of story (without even having read them yet,) I’d be willing to bet that any of Tan’s earlier works are the way to go.


What the ratings mean:

Bookmark it!–Read this book and then buy it and add it to to your own collection.  It’s definitely worth it!

Borrow it–Check this one out from the library; it’s a worthy read, but think twice before spending your hard-earned money on it.

Bypass it–Free time is precious.  Don’t spend it on this book!

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