The Valley of Amazement is a very long saga about a young girl in Shanghai whose American mother is the madam of one of the most exclusive courtesan houses in the city. The story begins in 1905, when Violet Minturn is a young girl. Violet grows up watching her mother oversee the business of entertaining both American and Chinese businessmen, and she has a full run of the courtesan house and a view of what goes on. When the Ching dynasty falls in 1912, a new, tentative government is formed. Violet and her mother fear danger and they arrange to leave Shanghai. A terrible trick separates Violet and her mother, however, and Violet must begin a new life as a virgin courtesan, prelude to the real thing. She is just fourteen.
Amy Tan’s story takes a very detailed look at the life of a courtesan and the business of securing a lucrative place in the world of entertaining men. The main storyline focuses on Violet and spans over thirty years during which Violet becomes involved in a variety of relationships and dangerous, desperate situations. She feels abandoned and looks for the love and security she once had, failing to see her mistakes in judgement.
In a second story, Tan takes the reader back to 1897 when Violet’s mother, Lucia, is sixteen and anxious to escape her life in San Francisco, where she is sure her self-involved parents do not love her. Sparks fly when she meets Lu Shing, a young landscape artist. Their inevitable union results in Violet’s illegitimate birth into the deep traditions of a Chinese culture that places supreme value on its sons, not daughters.
Both mother and daughter suffer heartache and loss and are haunted by unresolved conflicts. Their stories revolve around a landscape painting by Lu Shing, entitled “The Valley of Amazement,” a place that is both real and imagined by both women. Lucia and Violet each work to find a way to fix their broken relationships, but nothing will ever be perfect, as it is in Lu Shing’s rendering.
Despite this interesting plot, I had a hard time with this book for a number of reasons.
- It’s very long and while I enjoy long books, I felt the storyline was often slow and repetitive.
- While it’s natural to have similarities between mother and daughter, their personalities were not distinct, making it more difficult to differentiate between the two.
- Tan goes into excessive detail about the courtesan life, and includes all the gritty aspects of the business of buying sex. The only reason I can come up with for her to include pages and pages of graphic descriptions and frequent references to these scenes is to point to the crude nature of the profession. It seems over the top to me, however, an attempt to fit into a Fifty Shades genre and I think these repeated details reduce the impact of the book.
- The disappointing finish includes a pat tie-up of details, hardly a reward for reading nearly 600 pages.
I did enjoy a couple things about the book, however.
- I like how Violet, although bitter about her feelings of abandonment, remembers her mother’s character when faced with difficult and dangerous circumstances. Violet is able to steel herself in bad situations, and act as “a matter of necessity,” just like her mother.
- I think Violet’s attendant, Magic Gourd, is the best character in the book and a great friend to Violet. Her wisdom shows in the things she says:
You have no idea what village life is like, Little Violet. You might change your mind, but that’s all you’ll be able to change.
Cruel men are addicted to another person’s fear. Once they taste it, they have to feed it.
Look ahead and not down. Where you look is where you’ll go.
This advice refers to traveling over a steep cliff, but I like the figurative meaning too!
Have you read The Valley of Amazement? What did you think? I have read The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife and The Bonesetter’s Daughter and enjoyed them all. I was disappointed with The Valley of Amazement, however.
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