The Valley of Amazement

By Amy Tan

(HarperCollins/Ecco, $29.99, 608 pages)

 Who is this author?

Amy Tan, 61, first captured her vast audience with her 1989 blockbuster bestselling novel of mothers and daughters, “The Joy Luck Club,” and she has never let her readers go.  Her subsequent  books are “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” “The Hundred Secret Senses,” “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” and “The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life.” Her books for children  are “The Moon Lady” and “Sagwa,” which became a PBS production. She also has published  essays and stories in many magazines and anthologies. Born in Oakland, Calif., she now lives with her husband in San Francisco and New York.

What is this book about?

Violet is half Chinese and half American on her mother Lulu’s side. Living in Shanghai in 1912, where Lulu is the successful proprietor of an exclusive house of courtesans, Violet herself is caught up in political strife and becomes “ a virgin courtesan” herself. How she comes to this turn of events – in 1897, Lulu, then 16, had followed her Chinese artist lover to his country and run smack into its rigid traditions – and what happens to these two similar yet very different women,  is the spine of the tale. Their search for respect, security and love fleshes out the story, which, true to Tan’s storytelling talents, explores the ways women think, battle and connect.

Why you’ll like it:

Amy Tan writes largely about women who are Chinese, but her stories are universal and have wide appeal: her books have been translated into 35 languages. Few contemporary authors are as adept at parsing the complex relationships that mothers and daughters create, full of joy but also of sadness, seasoned with envy, regret, hopefulness and often, irony and humor. This book has that intriguing underpinning, and upon it is a glorious structure of historical and cultural information about China and the United States over more than 100 years, the lives of courtesans and the yin and yang of love and betrayal.

What others are saying:

The  Amazon Best Book of the Month, November 2013 review says:  For a hefty half of her gorgeous new novel, The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan instructs us in the finer points of life as a courtesan in early 20th century China: expect and revel in sensual descriptions of the clothes, the customs, even the not-so-niceties of catering to rich men in a very regimented society. Lulu Minturn is a white Californian who’d run away with a Chinese painter, established the best courtesan house in Shanghai and given birth to a beautiful “Eurasian” (in the parlance of the time) daughter, Violet. Soon, either because she was tricked or deceitful, Lulu abandons Violet and flees back to America; history soon is in danger of repeating itself when Violet gives birth to her own daughter. (Eventually, the scene shifts to California, where the family searches for redemption and reconciliation.) Nobody does mother-daughter angst and cross cultural conflict better than Tan, who has been literally writing the book(s) on these topics for years. What makes this novel special is its meticulous language–readers may be struck by the juxtaposition of poetry and Anglo-Saxon equivalents in descriptions of courtesans’ sex lives–and its elucidation of the cultural upheavals at the time. This is as much a historical novel as it is a family story, at once intimate and sweeping, personal and political. You’ll have learned something by the end–and you’ll probably also be weeping.

The New York Times Book Review  says: “Written in Tan’s characteristically economical and matter-of-fact style, The Valley of Amazement is filled with memorably idiosyncratic characters. And its array of colorful multilayered stories is given further depth by Tan’s affecting depictions of mothers and daughters. Here are strong women struggling to survive all that life has to throw at them, created by a writer skilled at evoking the roil of emotions and mad exploits they experience when they follow their hearts.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “In her first novel since 2009′s Saving Fish from Drowning, Tan again explores the complex relationships between mothers and daughters, control and submission, tradition and new beginnings. Jumping from bustling Shanghai to an isolated village in rural China to San Francisco at the turn of the 19th century, the epic story follows three generations of women pulled apart by outside forces. The main focus is Violet, once a virgin courtesan in one of the most reputable houses in Shanghai, who faces a series of crippling setbacks: the death of her first husband from Spanish influenza, a second marriage to an abusive scam artist, and the abduction of her infant daughter, Flora. In a series of flashbacks toward the book’s end, Violet’s American mother, Lulu, is revealed to have suffered a similar and equally disturbing fate two decades earlier. The choice to cram the truth behind Lulu’s sexually promiscuous adolescence in San Francisco, her life as a madam in Shanghai, and Violet’s reunion with a grown Flora into the last 150 pages makes the story unnecessarily confusing. Nonetheless, Tan’s mastery of the lavish world of courtesans and Chinese customs continues to transport.

Booklist says, in a starred review: “Lulu, an American, is the only white woman running a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai in 1905. Burdened with secret anguish and loss, she relies on her loyal associate, Golden Dove, to help her create an enclave of confidentiality, courtly seduction, and voluptuous pleasure for the city’s most influential men. Her lonely young daughter, Violet, has taken to eavesdropping and spying to survive. Shocked to be outed as half-Chinese, Violet thinks, “half-breed, half-hated,” and indeed, this exposure is only the beginning of an all-out assault against her sense of self and freedom. In her first novel in eight years, Tan  returns to her signature mother-daughter focus as she pulls back the curtain on an aggressively sexist society after the fall of the last Chinese dynasty precipitates monumental change. Reaching back to Lulu’s San Francisco childhood and forward to Violet’s operatic struggles and traumas and reliance on her smart, loyal mentor, Magic Gourd, this scrolling saga is practically a how-to on courtesan life and a veritable orgy of suspense and sorrow. Ultimately, Tan’s prodigious, sumptuously descriptive, historically grounded, sexually candid, and elaborately plotted novel counters violence, exploitation, betrayal, and tragic cultural divides with beauty, wit, and transcendent friendships between women.’

Says Kirkus Reviews:  “Tan, who made her name with The Joy Luck Club (1989), blends two favorite settings, Shanghai and San Francisco, in a tale that spans generations. …Lulu is in Shanghai for a reason–and on that reason hinges a larger conceit, the one embodied by the book’s title. She has a daughter, and the daughter, naturally enough, has cause to wonder about her ancestry, if little time to worry overmuch about some of the details, since her mom leaves her to fend for herself, not entirely willingly. The chinoiserie and exoticism aside, Violet makes a tough and compelling character, a sort of female equivalent to Yul Brynner as played by Lucy Liu. The members of the “Cloud Beauties,” who give Violet her sentimental education, make an interesting lot themselves, but most of the attention is on Violet and the narrative track that finds her on a parallel journey, literally and figuratively, always haunted by “those damned paintings that had belonged to my mother” and that will eventually reveal their secrets. Tan’s story sometimes suffers from longueurs, but the occasional breathless, steamy scene evens the score: “He lifted my hips and my head soared and I lost all my senses except for the one that bound us and could not be pulled apart.” A satisfyingly complete, expertly paced yarn.”

When is it available?

Amy Tan’s latest can be found at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Dwight and Mark Twain branches.

Do you have something to say about this book, this author or books in general? Please post your comments here and I will respond. Let’s get a good books conversation going!

Comments are closed.