Published by Ecco
Publication date: November 5th 2013
Amy Tan is another author returning this year after a multi-year absence. In The Valley of Amazement she weaves a tapestry of the lives of three generations of women, one silken thread at a time. The novel is a portrait of life in a courtesan house in Shanghai at the turn of the century. Violet’s mother, Lucia, is the proprietor. As she is growing-up Violet believes that none of the norms of Chinese society apply to her because she is half-American …until her mother leaves the country and she is left behind. She has been sold and is now in training to be a courtesan herself—despite her background. Even when she falls in love and has her own daughter, Flora, it ends badly. As she reaches the age of declining value in a courtesan’s life she meets another man who seems to love her for herself and, in an effort to recapture the bravado of her youth, decides to marry him and leave Shanghai.
Who would I become if I did not take this chance? What would remain of my self-esteem? Waiting for something better was a luxury of young girls. I had a chance to keep my self-respect and to also have respect from others.
The grand drama and suffering that Tan does so well is magnified in The Valley of Amazement; young girls are sold into prostitution, babies stolen, families split up, children abandoned. Tan is a mesmerizing writer of the sort who hooks the reader within fifty pages but by the midpoint some of this story feels too familiar. While it is courtesans not geishas, the training and induction into a highly rarified environment is reminiscent of Memoirs of a Geisha.
The setting aside, The Valley of Amazement lacks the emotional immediacy of Tan’s earlier work, The Joy Luck Club. There the mother-daughter relationship was played out in four different families, each unique in their dysfunction and each relatable to women of all countries and classes. The Valley of Amazement also focuses on mothers and daughters but the pathos and bad fortune are of such an operatic scale that instead of creating a connection the only emotion evoked is doubt. The novel captures the imagination, with its outsize characters and a vibrant depiction of life in Shanghai during tumultuous times, but it does not grip the heart.