Summary and book reviews of Saving Fish From Drowning by Amy Tan

Saving Fish From Drowning

by Amy Tan

Saving Fish From Drowning
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2005, 480 pages
    Paperback:
    Sep 2006, 512 pages

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Book Summary

A provocative novel from the bestselling author of The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter's Daughter.

On an ill-fated art expedition into the southern Shan state of Burma, eleven Americans leave their Floating Island Resort for a Christmas-morning tour - and disappear. Through twists of fate, curses, and just plain human error, they find themselves deep in the jungle, where they encounter a tribe awaiting the return of the leader and the mythical book of wisdom that will protect them from the ravages and destruction of the Myanmar military regime.
 
Filled with Amy Tan's signature "idiosyncratic, sympathetic characters, haunting images, historical complexity, significant contemporary themes, and suspenseful mystery" (Los Angeles Times), Saving Fish from Drowning seduces the reader with a façade of Buddhist illusions, magician's tricks, and light comedy, even as the absurd and picaresque spiral into a gripping morality tale about the consequences of intentions - both good and bad - and about the shared responsibility that individuals must accept for the actions of others.
 
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."

1


A Brief History of My Shortened Life

It was not my fault. If only the group had followed my original itinerary without changing it hither, thither, and yon, this debacle would never have happened. But such was not the case, and there you have it, I regret to say.

"Following the Buddha's Footsteps" is what I named the expedition. It was to have begun in the southwestern corner of China, in Yunnan Province, with vistas of the Himalayas and perpetual spring flowers, and then to have continued south on the famed Burma Road. This would allow us to trace the marvelous influence of various religious cultures on Buddhist art over a thousand years and a thousand miles—a fabulous journey into the past. As if that were not enough appeal, I would be both tour leader and personal docent, making the expedition a truly value-added opportunity. But in the wee hours of December 2nd, and just fourteen days before we were to leave on our expedition, a hideous thing happened . ...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. In the opening chapter, Bibi says, "...in all my life no one had loved me wholly and desperately." Discuss how this is reflected in Bibi's voice and in the way she narrates Saving Fish from Drowning.


  2. As the opening epigraph, Tan has chosen a quote from Albert Camus that reads, "Evil ...almost always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding." How does evil, ignorance, and good intentions play out in the novel?  Discuss whether you have observed this in your own experiences with others.


  3. The role of the media, including the Global News Network and the reality show "Darwin's Fittest" ...
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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

If you, like most BookBrowse members, enjoy books that inform while they entertain, I think you will find much to appreciate in Saving Fish From Drowning.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (409 words).

Media Reviews

The Washington Post - Craig Nova

By chance, before reading Saving Fish from Drowning, [I read] a story by Amy Tan called "Rules of the Game," which is a perfect exercise of perspective, character and language. This story was often on my mind when I tried to get through her new novel, since I was mystified as to what had happened to the author of such a lovely, precise and entertaining story.

The San Francisco Chronicle - Sara Peyton

Tan's hilarious new novel arrives at a time when we aren't laughing much at the news of the day. How much you enjoy "Saving Fish From Drowning" may have to do with how willing you are to be bewitched by a superbly executed, goodhearted farce that is part romance and part mystery with a political bent. With Tan's many talents on display, it's her idiosyncratic wit and sly observations about the nature of illusion that make this book pure pleasure. And by the end, all the travelers, including one charming tiny dog, seem like old friends.

Library Journal - Maureen Neville

Tan has admirably tackled the unique challenge of building a novel based on a real-life incident and turning the resulting tale into a commentary on the ironies of modern life. Recommended for all libraries.

Kirkus Reviews

The author's research ultimately smothers her story and characters. A pity, because this vividly imagined tale might very well have been her best yet.

Booklist - Donna Seaman

Starred Review. Although Tan's fiction is vitally realistic, she is drawn to otherworldly realms, however archly.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. It's based on a true story, and Tan seems to be having fun with it, indulging in the wry, witty voice of Bibi while still exploring her signature questions of fate, connection, identity and family.

Reader Reviews

JaneN

Clueless Travelers
Amy Tan introduces us to a group of people who are out for an adventure, so they sign up with their friend and guide, Bebi Chen. The problems start when Bebi dies, or is she murdered ? The group decides to go on without her, in her memory and that's ...   Read More

Mattie B

I KNOW these people!
I enjoyed reading the sharp and telling character studies in "Saving Fish..." I used to work with a charity that had extensive contact with very wealthy people. The Burma tour group could have all been in one or another of my committees ...   Read More

mjc

I thought it was pretty good
I did find that this book was a bit too long, but the descriptions were lovely, I enjoyed the banter between the tourists and appreciated that it was difficult to make an interesting story about a real life event.

Annoyed

Saving Fish From Drowning
I was neither intrigued by this book nor bored. The only reason I finished this book was because I had to for a class. granted the story was good and the relationship between the tourists were fun to watch unravel, but Tan drags the story on for far ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

In the novel's foreword Amy Tan informs readers that Saving Fish... is loosely based on a  true story, and even reproduces an article from the San Francisco Chronicle.  However, confusingly, the San Francisco Chronicle's own review seems to imply that no such story was ever printed. 

She provides an explanation of her book's title as follows: 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 ...

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