Putnam (October), $26.95
Amy Tan's newest novel flounders from beginning to end. The book opens with the untimely death of San Francisco socialite Bibi Chen, murdered days before she's to lead her friends on an exotic vacation. The group decides to go on the trip anyway, so Chen narrates from beyond the grave as the 12 clichéd American travelers embark on their ill-fated trip to Burma. It's an intriguing premise, but unfortunately Tan uses irritatingly amateur suspense techniques ("He would keep it forever -- or until disaster struck, which would be only a few hours later") and pseudo-spiritual ideas to carry the story. Obviously fond of her paradoxical title, she comes back to the phrase (a Buddhist saying that justifies killing fish for food) a few times too many.
The author produces a few funny scenes and a couple of pithy punch lines. But most of Saving's characters feel forced and are uncharacteristically unlikable. Tan's trademarks -- strong women, interesting twists of fate, and endearing mother-daughter relationships -- are nowhere to be found. The real problem, though, is the exceedingly boring plot. It takes Tan nearly 250 pages of tedious anecdotes and heavy-handed foreshadowing to get to the kidnapping of the travelers. And once that happens, the book doesn't get any better. The story becomes limp with inane philosophical ideas and lackluster cultural insights. In the end, Tan's moments of acumen and poetry are overshadowed by the annoying narrator and the plethora of dull details.