Author: Amy Tan
Publisher: Ecco, November, 2013
Avid readers usually say they love to read because it takes them to places they’d never go in person. That is so true of The Valley of Amazement – at least for this avid reader. The story centers around a high-class courtesan house in Shanghai back in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. It all seemed so real that I’m sure Amy Tan must have done an enormous amount of research.
The Valley of Amazement is first told by Violet, who is the daughter of Lulu, the Madame of the house. Violet is a rather spoiled and willful child. She believes she’s better than everyone else because she is American. The truth is she’s only half American. Her mother is American and her father is an unknown-to-her Chinese man.
The first half of the story is quite interesting. It focuses on the women and the goings-on in this exclusive courtesan’s house. We don’t get all the details, but the reader gets to learn a great deal about the culture of the place. This time period is when China was experiencing political difficulties and it became difficult for Americans to stay there. Lulu and Violet are set to sail for San Francisco, but only Lulu leaves. They are both tricked and Violet is sold as a virgin courtesan and forced to work for another courtesan house.
In the second half of the book we learn of Lulu’s background and how she came to be in Shanhai and how she became a courtesan. The story also continues to follow Violet and switches back and forth between China and San Francisco. Eventually, there is also the story of Flora, Violet’s daughter.
There is no doubt in my mind that Amy Tan creates unique characters with great storylines. I’ve known that since The Joy Luck Club. She focuses on relationships between women, especially mothers and daughters. She adds other minor themes to her stories such as forgiveness, which always make me stop and think about my own experience. To top it off she writes in beautiful and elegant prose.
My only disappointment in The Valley of Amazement was that it was too long. It felt as if she were telling the same story in the second half as she told me in the first section. It definitely could have been condensed down to about 400 pages. Of course, it didn’t keep me from reading all 589 pages. After all, this is Amy Tan.
Will I read her next book? Of course I will. No one but Amy Tan can take me to another world where life doesn’t compare to my own experience, but at the same time make me feel a real kinship with the people in that new world.