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.
Thanks for the review. I was a big fan of Tan’s earlier work. When the Joy Luck Club came out it gave such fresh new perspective, but over the years I have not liked her work as much. I don’t know if i’m ready to dive back into Tan territory just yet.
That’s kind of how I felt. It is good reading, a fantastical story but a bit soap opera-ish.
Andi (@estellasrevenge) says
Seeing as I just finished my first Tan novel this weekend (The Joy Luck Club), I’m so stoked to read this one! I have a couple of her other novels on my shelves to get to first, though. Great review!
Should be interesting to read one shortly after the other. I’ll be interested to see what you think!
Soap opera-ish tends to annoy me. I liked how you worded it, that it was “of such an operatic scale that instead of creating a connection the only emotion evoked is doubt.” Such a great point with a number of books!
I’m glad it made sense to you because it’s a feeling and so kind of hard to express.
Rebecca @ Love at First Book says
This is a fab review. Did this one come out recently??? I mean, I am assuming it did but like in Nov? Or earlier?
I’ve enjoyed Amy Tan but she hasn’t blown me away with her books, at least the 1-2 I’ve read. I’m willing to give her more of a chance, though, because I didn’t dislike her.
Just came out this month. She’s a marvelous writer but the story just didn’t quite work for me.
Great review! I think I will look up her previous book and maybe add that to the list, because I don’t read many books with an eastern setting, but the last time I did, it was a refreshing change.
Ann Ewel says
Catherine, I just finished Valley of Amazement and you captured the book well. I didn’t think it was up to her usual standard. I am not sure I would have finished it if I were not reading it for a book club. But the last quarter seemed to have some of the Amy Tan magic so I was glad I stuck with it.
Allison @ The Book Wheel says
I didn’t even know she had a new book out! Thanks so much for educating me 🙂 This sound amazing. I have a friend who grew up in America whose parents tried to force her into an arranged marriage after high school and, although she refused, realized that despite growing up in America, her Nepalese roots were still very deep. I’m going to tell her about this book!