This is a book which has been on my TBR shelf for a very long time. I read and enjoyed The Joy Luck Club many years ago, so I don't really know why it's taken me so long to get to this one.
Bibi Chen is a San Francisco socialite who dies in mysterious circumstances. Her spirit lingers on however, hovering around her friends, not only able to listen in on conversations but also sometimes to hear their innermost thoughts. This makes her a very useful, if judgmental, narrator.
Bibi had been going to act as a tour guide for a group of her friends on a trip to Burma. The friends decide to go anyway (not least because there is no insurance to cover cancelling the trip), with one of them saying, "May Bibi join us in spirit". Which of course she does.
Without Bibi's strict itinerary the trip begins to fall apart. The tourists' preconceived ideas hit up against the reality. They are not happy with their hotel;
The Glorious View Villa was, in fact, the best hotel in the whole of the Naxi Autonomous Region, but for a group used to staying at a chain no worse that the Four Seasons, "best" should have been thought of as a restricted comparative term, not a fixed standard of excellence.
The trip is one cultural misunderstanding after another, a situation not helped by inept tour guides. The political unrest in Burma simmers underneath events, but the tourists are largely unaware of it. It culminates in their being kidnapped by a group of ethnic Karen people who think they recognise one of the tourists as the 'Younger White Brother' come to rescue them from the persecution they suffer from the government.
I thought this was a really good story. It taught me more about Burma (this is the name Tan chooses to use, rather than Myanmar) which is a country I know very little about. It is a difficult book to classify, some of it is lighthearted and even comic, while other parts dealing with persecution and the political situation are quite dark. I like Bibi as a narrator - becoming exasperated at what her friends are doing, but being powerless to intervene.