This book is about two sisters, one named Olivia and the other Kwan. Olivia lived with her family (lived in San Francisco) and never knew about Kwan her half-sister which her father left behind in China (Changmian) until her father died (of kidney failure even thought he had four of them ~ which (I know I shouldn't) find amusing) when she was only four years old. Olivia's mom promised to bring Kwan to live with them in America which happened two years later. Kwan was now 18 and Olivia was six and her mother was marrying again. Being the stereotypical white woman Olivia's mom is (at the airport), she imagined Kwan to be a small, skinny, shy, and quiet girl. Instead she turns out to a vital and very loud coming up to greet them saying "haloo." Kwan and Olivia developed a bond as her mom is too busy with marriage and divorce and is now back to dating again.
They shared a room and Kawn would ask her too many questions. Soon students from Olivia's school would tease her for having a Chinese sister that knew nothing and she hated Kwan for it. However, Kwan didn't mind and still was nice to her sister, she would tell her stories about her past life in China and about her Yin eyes, which give her the ability to see the dead (it also got her committed in a mental institution for shock therapy).
Tan makes it credible by the broken English Kwan spoke to her sister (couldn't get even her name right, she calls her Libby-ah), even after 30 years, which is where the rest of the book takes place. By now Olivia (a photographer) is married to her soon to be ex-husband Simon.
The plot revolves around the yin eyes that Kwan has. Kwan, Olivia, and her husband go on a business trip to Kwan's homeland. Olivia finally reconciles her relationship with Kwan and learns that all those stories that her sister told her were real. She now believed in ghosts and the hundred secret senses that keep the past alive. The trip brought Olivia and Simon (after he disappears and she worries for him) back together which Kwan was trying to do all along. Then Kwan disappears and is never found again. Nine months later, Olivia had a girl which she thinks is a gift from Kwan because the doctors said that Simon was infertile (they were wrong). She learned that seeing ghosts were just believing the people you love never die. Although one cannot see them with our normal sense, Olivia remembers she can use the hundred secret senses to find Kwan anytime she needed to.
Tan includes the spiritual world of ghosts and superstitions as she does with many of her other books. This was quite believable to me because in my family we still have a day to honor the dead. My parents would cook as feast and my sister and I would have to set the table with wine and many bowl as well as chairs as if we were having many guests over. We were also not allowed to eat the food (which one is very tempted to do). After the food was prepared, we would light candles and incense (which makes the neighbors complain) and then we all bowed and asked the spirits (mostly from one's own ancestry) to protect us. After the feast we would burn folded paper painted with silver to look like the money use in ancient China.
In conclusion, I think this is a deep book that deals with many themes, just with a Chinese American twist. Although it is a slow read in the beginning, everything will make sense in the end. Tan wanted to "show me the world is not a place, but the vastness of the soul. And the soul is nothing more than love, limitless, endless, all that moves us toward knowing what is true.