The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan (historical novel, 2013, 589 pages).
I bounce around a great deal in my reading–between favorite authors and assorted genres. It’s rare for me to read every novel a given author puts out. And yet…this one is Ms. Tan’s sixth novel and the sixth I’ve read. (As an aside, I haven’t read her memoir or either of her two children’s books–but book-length fiction for an adult audience? I’ve eagerly consumed the whole batch, from The Joy Luck Club onward–and while I’ve enjoyed some more than others, I have never been disappointed.)
In many ways, The Valley of Amazement is a typical Tan novel–and that is NOT meant as a put-down by any means. Reflecting her own heritage and experiences, Tan writes almost exclusively about Chinese-American families–and specifically dwells on the interactions/conflicts between the two cultures and various generations–with a particular focus on mothers and daughters.
Taking place mostly in China and particularly the foreigner-dominated International District of Shanghai, this book spans the years between 1897 and 1937–but not in chronological order. It actually opens in 1905, in the only upscale courtesan house in the city owned and operated by a foreigner. Two viewpoint characters share the stage.
The most important one (at least throughout most of the book) is Violet Minturn, then age seven, an intelligent but willful girl who has no idea who her father is. In fact, she thinks of herself as fully American–not realizing until much later that she is, in fact, half-Chinese.
The other, her mother, Lucia (aka Lulu) is an American–a sharp and mysterious businesswoman, every bit as willful as her daughter. She’s the only foreigner to own/operate one of the city’s upscale courtesan houses, the Hidden Jade Path. Far more than a simple whorehouse, this place is a plush and mannerly gentlemen’s club that serves as an unofficial nexus bringing together deal-making Chinese and Western businessmen, as well as providing them the–ahem–‘companionship’ of the ‘lovely flowers’ who inhabit the place.
The tradition-bound and highly ritualized life in a courtesan house provides a fascinating backdrop for mother-daughter conflict, as Violet grows up and as the Revolution that transforms China from an Empire to a struggling Republic heralds vast changes for its citizens (and the foreigners living there).
How Lucia came to China in 1897 as a pregnant sixteen-year-old and the various cultural and family conflicts, personal mistakes and bad choices, tragedies and outright betrayals that led to their being horrifically separated comes clear only later, when she takes over the narrative for several chapters.
Now on the verge of adulthood, Violet is forced into being a courtesan herself–with her mother tricked into thinking she’s dead and leaving for America. Violet endures much and struggles to understand her own identity. A love-based (if not quite legal) marriage ends all too quickly with her mate’s death and added heartbreak when her own daughter is stolen from her.
This loss ultimately allows Violet to come to terms with her own feelings of abandonment. But meanwhile, Violet’s quest for security leads her into a second marriage–a loveless disaster trapping her and others in a grubby backwater of rural China. She returns to Shanghai after a harrowing escape and remakes her life as a translator/assistant to a former ‘customer’ of her courtesan days–who proves eventually a true friend and partner.
As always, I hate to provide ‘spoilers’–but after all is said and done, Violet and Lucia regain contact with each other. It’s done in an emotionally honest way–both cautious from past hurts. And Violet’s own daughter is also eventually involved–as three generations re-connect and come to some degree of understanding.
Even lesser characters in Tan’s work tend to be well-drawn and multi-dimensional, and this novel is no exception. A very fine book–highly recommended.