[LITERARY] Book Review: Amy Tan's "The Opposite of Fate"
- The Opposite of Fate by Amy Tan
There are two kinds of writers in this country: those who write for
critics, and those who write for readers. Since 1989's i, Amy Tan
has distinguished herself as one of America's most talented writers
of the latter sort: Her prose is clean and elegant, her characters
and stories engaging.
As with all simplifications, the above statement is untrue in
several respects. Many novelists write for critics and audiences
alike; and since Finnegan's Wake, perhaps the apogee of the 'purely'
literary novel, some of the most-praised writers are the most widely-
read. Tan's novels are full of grist for the critical mills, to be
sure, but what distinguishes her-both for better and for worse-from
either of the above types is that her novels are written most of all
for herself: she riffs on her own obsessions, and tries to bring
order to her perception of the world.
The Opposite of Fate is a collection of Ms. Tan's nonfiction pieces
that includes essays, speeches, and many less-formal pieces. It is
occasionally exasperating, intermittently fascinating, frequently
illuminating, and a treasure-trove of personal information for
readers who wish to compare and contrast the author's life with
those of her fictional characters.
The book is most often exasperating when Amy Tan adopts a self-
amused and self-deprecating yet self-satisfied persona not
dissimilar from so many humorists and tale-tellers who litter the
airwaves of public radio. In "Dangerous Advice," she tells of her
first experience skiing:
I know now that even the smallest of inclines looks like Instant
Death to a beginner, and if I ever went back to Gstaad, I'd probably
laugh to see that the run was nothing but a bunny slope, a mere
pimple of a hill. But then I think: Why did it take twenty minutes
by chairlift to reach the top? (p. 132)
When she dons that uniform, the careful attention to the physical,
emotional, and moral universes that define her work are lost under a
bland sameness. The scene is amusing enough, but there's little of
Tan in there, and she is what makes her books worth reading.
Fortunately, the book spends equal time on the experiences that make
her unique and worth reading. In "A Question of Fate," she writes of
the murder of a dear friend; the terrifying, prophetic dreams that
followed; and how this lead to her becoming a writer. Her voice here
is matter-of-fact, not without humor but focused on the telling of
the tale, and it is thoroughly riveting.
Many pieces are informative without being as unforgettable as that
story. "Joy Luck and Hollywood" chronicles bringing Tan's first
novel to life in film; while engaging, she adds only a little to the
usual impression of novelists in Hollywood. Perhaps it is because
she had a sensitive director and little studio interference, or
because of her resolute refusal to get heavily involved in the
business of movie-making, but "Joy Luck and Hollywood" is ultimately
Of central interest to readers of Ms. Tan's novels are the many
tales of her mother and their sometimes-rocky relationship. Again
and again, Tan examines her mother and her mother's view of the
world. The careful reader will learn which incidents in the fiction
are taken from her life, and exactly how imaginative and creative
she has been in telling an emotional truth through fictional
circumstances, something for which Tan is not given enough attention-
her books often seem so credible that it is difficult to remember
they are actually fiction. The Opposite of Fate is a wonderful
corrective for readers who imagine that Ms. Tan writes only of her
own life and her own experience.
As in many books of collected essays, some stories and situations
are repeated so frequently that they become tedious, but this may be
inevitable in a book of standalone nonfiction pieces by a single
writer whose primary subject is herself. Readers with an interest in
Tan's work and the ghosts (both literal and metaphorical) who haunt
her will find much to enjoy in this book.