On a winter day nearly two years ago, my creative writing professor passed around two things to our class: one, a crudely printed short story and two, tickets to see a guest speaker at the university. The short story was one structured as a set of instructions: the dos and don’ts of the old world Shanghai courtesan trade, as told by a high-class madame to her apprentice. I then looked at my ticket. Amy Tan. Now, if you were a fan of Tan, you would have easily surmised that the short story was the kernel that would form Tan’s latest novel The Valley of Amazement. You would be right.
On the non-writing front, Tan was funny, compelling, and interesting as a public speaker. Especially when she told stories about her family hijinks. Most of which were centered on her mother, her trove of inspiration. After the talk, there was a book signing. Because I had found her personal stories so interesting I bought The Opposite of Fate and had it signed by Tan.
The Opposite of Fate is a collection of memoir-like essays; subheaded by the words “Memories of a Writing Life.” Now that I’ve read it, I found The Opposite of Fate to be a mixed bag. Tan’s forte has always been the mother-daughter relationship. For this reason, it is no surprise that most of the chapters having to do with her mother are compelling. Yet even then some of the shorter chapters about her mom can be edited out; they just aren’t strong enough.
There’s an unforgettable chapter about the brutal murder of one of Tan’s dear friends and its great aftermath upon her life; which included dream visitations and a change of career for Tan. There’s an amusing long bit on Tan’s dominatrix-costumed shenanigans with a rock band that included Stephen King and Barbara Kingsolver. But other chapters I could do without: squirrel watching at Lake Tahoe and interludes into skiing and interior decorating. As a rule, I found the short chapters forgettable, the long sections worthwhile.
I also thought some bits in the book were repetitive. Repetitive twofold: first, because some of the stuff in The Opposite of Fate I already knew from hearing her speak, including several anecdotes about her mother and her admiration for Vladimir Nabokov. Second, because Tan repeats herself throughout the book too. She talked extensively about a portion of her teenage years spent in Switzerland with her mother and brother in the beginning chapter “The CliffNotes Version of My Life.” But then she would talk about her Switzerland sojourn again and again in bits throughout the book when there’s really nothing fresh to talk about.
The Opposite of Fate includes the now frequently anthologized “Mother Tongue,” which was good, but to me, the essay “Required Reading and Other Dangerous Subjects” alone is worth the price of admission into this book. In it, Tan wrote about the responsibility of the writer and the swerve towards political correctness in academia. Tan is dismayed at attitudes where descriptions must provide lessons on culture, plots must be socially relevant, and characters must serve as positive role models. This attitude, she claimed, has permeated academic thinking so much, a student walked up to her
and said in a loud voice: “Don’t you think you have the responsibility to write about Chinese men as positive role models?”
I [Tan] told him, “I think you have the responsibility as a reader to think to yourself.”
There’s anger, there’s humor, and there’s food for thought in this essay. What more could you ask for? While I still think the trend towards social justice in literary criticism can’t be all that bad, “Required Reading and Other Dangerous Subjects” has made me rethink my stance; the hallmark of a great essay.
“The Best Stories,” Tan’s introduction to The Best American Short Stories 1999 is my runner-up to best essay in The Opposite of Fate. “The Best Stories” is more than Tan’s justification for the short stories included in The Best American Short Stories 1999, it is also a memoir on her reading history and an exhortation for us simply to enjoy fiction. Here, Tan comes across as someone you’d love to talk about books with. Sure, she’s got standards but she’s not pretentious about them. She readily admits that some stories leaves her with a “huh?” and worries that it is her own incompetence that drives her to confusion. Something any student can relate to.
Overall, I give The Opposite of Fate three out of five stars. It’s a quick, easy read with more than a few memorable moments. But it would have been a much stronger book had some of the repetitive parts been trimmed and some of the extra weight edited out. The Opposite of Fate would be much better had it been three hundred pages instead of four hundred.
Ultimately, I wish I had purchased a novel by Tan instead of The Opposite of Fate. Perhaps The Kitchen God’s Wife, which I gleaned from The Opposite of Fate to be the story most based on Tan’s mother. Or perhaps The Valley of Amazement, to see how far the short story I read in the writing workshop has changed. Or perhaps it’s time to curl up in my quilt, make myself a hot cup of green tea, and reread The Joy Luck Club, which is waiting patiently on my bookshelf.