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.
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.
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.
Amy Tan is always a good, engaging read, but this novel lacks the depth of relationships and credibility of her earlier works.
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.
Set in late 19th c. San Francisco and early 20th c. Shanghai, the novel primarily focuses on Violet Minturn, the daughter of Lucia Minturn and a Chinese artist, Lu Shin, whom Lucia has followed to Shanghai. Rejected by his family, Lucia, in partnership with a Chinese woman, Golden Dove, set up a series of bars culminating in a first-class courtesan house/ gentlemen's club where Western and Asian businessmen mingled to set up mutually beneficial business deals. When the Ching dynasty was overturned, and Shanghai became dangerous for Westerners, Lucia decided to return to San Francisco. Swindled and tricked by a lover, she was separated from Violet, then 14, who was kidnapped and sold as a "virgin courtesan." In her training to be a first-class courtesan, we learn much about that particular society and how Shanghai culture was adapting to the 20th c. Despite my formal reservations about the novel, I enjoyed it, and I'm sure others who like Amy Tan and are interested in the era and in troubled mother-daughter relationships will also enjoy it. It's just not my favorite of her works.
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.