Violet Minturn, a half-Chinese/half-American courtesan who deals in seduction and illusion in Shanghai, struggles to find her place in the world, while her mother, Lucia, tries to make sense of the choices she has made and the men who have shaped her.
Fast forward and politics rears its ugly head, previous players are no longer the ruling players and love makes a fool of an otherwise wise woman. This is when it began to get monotonous for me. The training of a young virgin, the intimate details all became too much, I no longer cared to read constantly about the ways to please a man. Details were repeated and I had a hard time reading the explicit details on the deflowering of a young girl, and it was more than one girl.
In truth the book was about a hundred pages too long for me, but while I felt bad for these young woman, I really did not like any of these characters. This is how the book was for me, many from the reviews do not feel that way. So read this for a look into a little known culture, well researched but just know that in places it gets repetitive and very explicit.
Tan is a beautiful writer. Her perspective is clear and compelling. Her pacing and sense of time throughout the novel is right on. I stuck with the novel because of her lyrical writing but ended it feeling sad and empty on behalf of characters I pitied but never really knew.
Conflicts with her mother and father lead Lulu to become sexually active at a young age and at a time when this was not permissible to women. When she falls in love with a visiting Chinese artist, she runs away from home and follows him to Shanghai. But she ends up having to make her own way, with Violet a toddler and her infant son kidnapped by the artist’s family. With few paths open to a woman in China at the time, Lulu chooses to establish a courtesan house, which becomes renowned for accepting both Western and Chinese clients and for providing business advice. She becomes wealthy, but doesn’t realize what growing up in a brothel, however high class, is doing to her daughter, who feels the business- and her missing brother- mean more to Lulu than Violet does, just as Lulu had felt her mother’s passion for science mean more to her than Lulu did.
The story is written from more than one point of view; Violet, Magic Gourd, and Lulu all take a turn speaking. All have hard lives; the men in their lives are, for the most part, uncaring as to the needs of the women, treating them as objects that will be dealt with only when convenient- or even keeping them as outright slaves. Taking place in the dawn of the 20th century, the story is set against the political and social changes that took place in China.
I loved this book and couldn’t put it down. The details of the lives of these women made them come alive; what they wore, what they were expected to do, how they felt. I have to admit I had a hard time liking Violet at first; she comes off as a spoiled brat in some ways, but when you figure that she was being left on her own so much of the time, with only her cat as a friend, it’s hard to expect her to be otherwise. And she very quickly learned how hard life could be later. I was disappointed in ‘Saving Fish From Drowning’ but I’m very happy to see that Tan has returned with a great story.
Set primarily in the first quarter of the twentieth century in Shanghai, the majority of the novel focuses on Violet Minturn, the daughter of Lucia, an American woman who manages a first-class courtesan house in the city, and an absent Chinese father. When Violet is fourteen, her mother leaves for San Francisco but, because of a man’s devious machinations, Violet is separated from her mother and forced to remain in Shanghai where she is trained as a courtesan. 337 pages are then devoted to 13 years of Violet’s life, years during which she searches desperately for love. Via a 96-page flashback, we are given the story of Lucia’s life which, not surprisingly in an Amy Tan novel, has many parallels with Violet’s.
The first 90+ pages, detailing Violet’s life with her mother, are interesting. Violet learns some family secrets and has to deal with accepting her bi-racial background: “I feared that over time, I would no longer be treated like an American, but as no better than other Chinese girls. . . . I was a half-breed. . . . I feared the stranger-father within my blood. Would his character also emerge and make me even more Chinese? And if that came to pass, where would I belong? What would I be allowed to do? Would anyone love a half-hated girl?” (46 – 47).
The longest section describing Violet’s life from 1912 to 1925 is tiresome. Initially there is little tension. Violet does have to adapt to life as a courtesan, but it is a life of which she had a very good understanding. One chapter is entitled “Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir” “wherein Magic Gourd advises young Violet on how to become a popular courtesan while avoiding cheapskates, false love, and suicide” (139). It is obvious Tan did considerable research, but the 35-page chapter reads like a personal essay. What then follows is Violet’s life as a courtesan and her search for true love in a life devoted to the illusion of romance. Her search is not easy. Virtually all the men behave badly and Violet is left to suffer, albeit with Magic Gourd, her surrogate mother, always by her side. The problem is that the plot becomes predictable: Violet is warned not to do something, but she does it nonetheless and tragedy follows. Not learning from her mistakes, she makes the same poor choices over and over. Tragedy follows tragedy but it becomes difficult to have much sympathy for her since she never seems to mature.
When Lucia’s life is finally detailed, the reader is served a virtual repetition of Violet’s. A rebellious, self-assured girl feels unloved and so makes poor choices and suffers accordingly. The number of parallels between their lives is just too many: both choose men very unwisely and suffer devastating loss; both possess traits of pride and selfishness and the same harsh judgmental attitude towards parents. At one point, Magic Gourd tells Violet, “You are like your mother in so many ways. You often see too much, too clearly, and sometimes you see more than what is there. But sometimes you see far less. You are never satisfied with the amount or kind of love you have” (131). This type of direct characterization just repeats what has already become obvious. Furthermore, there are even parallels between the characters that people their lives. For example, Violet has her ever faithful companion, Magic Gourd, while Lucia has Golden Dove. Lu Shing moves in and out of Lucia’s life but affects it profoundly, and Loyalty Fang performs the same role in Violet’s. Both stories possess shams; the artist in one copies the works of famous artists and the poet in the other copies the poems of ancestors. These numerous echoes suggest a great deal of contrivance.
Another problem is that characters are not likeable. Violet can best be described as bland and naïve, and it is impossible not to become frustrated with her inability or unwillingness to learn from her experiences. Lucia is the same. There is also the difficulty with believability. Would a woman who has lost one child risk the possibility of losing a second child? Would a woman whose livelihood depends on being able to accurately gauge the trustworthiness of men be so blind to the true qualities of some men? Would a woman who has suffered what can only be called as a life-destroying loss show such little distress and give only rare thought to what she has lost? Sometimes there are contradictions. One minute Violet says, “It was strange how quickly it happened. . . . I felt free. That’s when I knew I could end our relationship for good. . . . I simply didn’t love him anymore” and then she says, “I stopped breaking up with him. . . . we always conceded that we loved each other. . . . We admitted it” (550 – 551). This is her behaviour towards the end of the book and this change occurs in the course of one page!
Stylistically, there are flaws. The book is much longer than it need be; it could use a judicious editing. The detailed descriptions of clothing and furniture are really not necessary. There is also unnecessary repetition: Lucia tries opium for the first time (489) and then she makes statements like, “This possibility was my opium” (496) and “Those words were opium to my soul” (510). Even the symbolism lacks depth: the use of the painting entitled The Valley of Amazement as a symbol for a life “that did not exist” (521) because it shows a truth “whitewashed with fake happiness” (573) is anything but subtle.
This novel revisits themes that Tan has explored in previous novels: identity and mother/daughter relationships. The elements of family secrets, misunderstandings, and yearning for a mother’s love have appeared in other of her books, so one will not discover much new in this one.
To my dismay, I found Tan’s latest novel a wearying read. I was anxious for it to end. Like Lucia and Violet, it begins with self-assurance but, like them, it goes on and on without new insight. Sadly, I was left with the feeling that Tan has become like Perpetual and Lu Shing; the men copy the poems and paintings of others, and she is imitating her previous work.
Even though the book spans 50 years and two continents, the story is very insular. This was an incredibly interesting period in Chinese History, the end of the Dynasty system, effects of WW1 and the beginnings of Communism all occurred within the book's timeline but we barely read about how any of it effects the characters. Maybe it wouldn't have made much of a difference in the trading capital of Shang-Hai, but it would have been nice to see how the characters reacted to these events.
While Violet is a bit dull, Tan has created memorable supporting characters. Violet's mother Lulu and her guardian Magic Gourd were wonderful to read about.
This book is a fine read, but if you want get a little more in depth about the time period I would recommend Spring Moon by Bette Bao Lord.
The story opens with the story of Lulu Minturn and her daughter, Violet. Lulu, also known as Lucia, runs an exclusive courtesan house in Shanghai in 1912. Visitors are both Chinese and Caucasian but the men are all members of the higher classes. In addition to having relationships with the courtesans, they also meet with each other to conduct business.
Lulu, a Caucasian, was born and raised in the United States. When she was sixteen years old, she fell in love with a Chinese painter, became pregnant, and came to China with him. Her dreams of a normal married life were shattered when she faced the realities of the Chinese views of both marriage and interracial relationships. Her personal history convinced her that the best way for her to survive there was to become a madam. More of her early history is related at the end of the book.
When Lulu leaves for the San Francisco to see the son who was taken from her the day after his birth, she plans to take Violet with her. She is mislead and Violet is not only left behind, she is sold as a virgin courtesan to another house where she meets Edward, an American man who takes her to be his wife. Unfortunately for her, he is already married to a woman in the United States. He has not intention of returning to her and is trying to divorce her. He and Violet have a daughter, Flora. To simplify things, they list Edward’s wife as the mother of the child. After his death four years later, his legal widow and her family come and snatch Flora because she has inherited quite a bit of money.
Violet returns to her former trade, eventually leaving to become the wife of one of her customers, a poet. Like her mother before her, she is deceived. Her new life is unbearable.
Lulu and Violet try to discover who they are, how they can be better women, and how they can survive in adverse situations. Both react strongly to the thought that their parents didn’t love them and to the deceit and betrayal they face. Both are strong women who tend to look forward, not backward.
THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT is much too long. The story is generally well-told, but there is much too much information about the details of a courtesan’s work. At times it read like a soft-porn novel. The ending is what the reader wants but seems too easy.
Thus was born The Valley of Amazement. This is a complex tale of an American woman who operates a courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 20th century. Lulu Minturn is raising her daughter, Violet, in Hidden Jade Path, a first class courtesan house catering to both Chinese and westerners. Lulu is estranged from her San Francisco family. Lulu's poor decisions lead to Violet's becoming a Shanghai courtesan while Lulu returns to San Francisco.
Most of this novel revolves around Violet's life. Violet struggles to survive as she becomes older, and less desirable. Also, the world is changing rapidly and the courtesans are becoming less fashionable. While Violet adapts to what she views as her mother's abandonment, she is also searching for love and a permanent place in the world.
About 3/4 of the way through the book, the focus turns to Lulu, and how she ended up a single mother in Shanghai. We learn of her struggles with her San Francisco family. We see how her impulsive decisions led her down a difficult path. Lulu's relationship with Violet's father is is troubled, and of course this complicates Violet's emotions and her dealings with men.
Despite its length, The Valley of Amazement was a quick read. As with Amy Tan's other novels, the compelling story and sympathetic characters made me want to keep reading. I highly recommend this fine novel.
Lucia is tricked into leaving behind her daughter, who is now 14, and the adventures of Violet, the Virgin Courtesan, begin. The story sweeps you up in the wildly changing fortunes of a clever courtesan.
Amy Tan is always a good, engaging read, but this novel lacks the depth of relationships and credibility of her earlier works.