I read Tan's The Hundred Secret Senses years ago and loved it; I quite enjoyed The Bonesetter's Daughter as well. I'm one of the few people on the planet who didn't much like The Joy Luck Club, but it was Tan's first novel and my reaction had more to do with the way she chose to tell the story than her talent as a writer. Also, I love historical fiction and reading about China. All of which is to say, I had high expectations for this book.
Unfortunately, it tanked. The book begins with some moderately interesting information about the protagonist's childhood, before launching into a long and detailed description of the high-class brothel in which she grew up, and that's representative of the following 200 pages. If brothels were an unexplored setting in literature, this might work, but they aren't and Tan isn't doing anything here that hasn't been done before. I've already read Memoirs of a Geisha, and its other (better) imitators, such as The Painter from Shanghai; this novel just feels derivative and flat, its characters more recycled than human, its plot lost in tedious description.
I heard an interview with Tan about this book, in which the primary topic was her extensive research, and she talked about spending a lot of time tracking down small details: for instance, when her characters traveled from Shanghai to San Francisco, would the ship have had rails? I applaud her commitment to accuracy, but that preoccupation shows. The setting is here but the life is missing. I finally yielded at page 215, because the story yet to evoke any interest in me and reading it had become a chore. The topic of early-20th-century Asian courtesans, as imagined by modern American writers, is pretty well exhausted at this point. Or at least, this book lacks the depth and vibrancy to make that ground worth revisiting. I hope for better from Tan's next novel.