The relationship between mothers and daughters is a theme frequently associated with Amy Tan’s writing. In Saving Fish from Drowning she barely touches on this theme, leaving room to explore several new themes.
After sampling some of the book’s reviews on Amazon, I concluded that more than a few of her fans rejected the book for exploring new territory. That’s foolish. The book is excellent on its own merits; it shouldn’t be faulted for not following the path of its predecessors.
If it places less emphasis on the relationships of mothers and daughters, it places more on that between fathers and sons, citizens and governments, religious beliefs and superstitions, honest folk and swindlers. This novel addresses a number of themes, and addresses them well.
According to Andrew Solomon in his 2005 New York Times review, Tan’s apparent emphasis on humor is unsuccessful. It didn’t make him laugh. However it did make me laugh, and if her satire is not as biting as that of Evelyn Waugh, it is gentle and considerate of natural foibles. Solomon says Tan's characters “sorties into political incorrectness …” are “obnoxious and even colonialist …” But that’s unfair. Traces of colonialism, do linger on. Even in Star Trek, the crew of the Enterprise bends the prime directive so often as to make it clear that those traces will linger well into the future.
Tan understands and elucidates the cultures from which her characters derive. If at times her characters seem foolish, it’s because they are. She’s not being judgmental, merely observant like a good anthropologist. The narrator, Bibi Chen isn’t perfect. Neither are her characters. And if this gives rise to humor, so be it—laugh and learn.