Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan

Violet Minturn is an American girl growing up in early 20th-century Shanghai. Her home is the only first class courtesan house owned by an American madam--her mother Lulu. Violet is a bit of a brat--she is furious because she feels neglected and unloved by her mother who is too busy with her business to pay much attention to Violent, and she takes out that fury on the "flowers" (the courtesans). She spies on them with their customers and generally makes herself a pest.

Then, as Violet is about to enter her teen years, her life is thrown into chaos. She discovers that she is half Chinese (there have been hints about this before, but she thought they were the taunts of people jealous of her) and has a brother. Lulu decides to pack up and head for San Francisco to reunite with her son. She entrusts part of the preparations for the trip to one of her longstanding customers, and she ends up on the boat while Violet is sold to a courtesan house as a "Virgin Courtesan." By coincidence, a courtesan her mother fired years ago is in the same house, and she takes Violet under her wing. A lengthy section is taken up with this woman, Magic Gourd, providing advice to Violet about how to be a successful courtesan.

And Violet does become a successful courtesan. Her personal life is less successful as she stumbles through a series of relationships that all--even a love match with a wealthy American--end badly. She makes a series of terrible decisions that seem to parallel some decisions in her mother's early life. Then, about two-thirds of the way through the lengthy book, Tan takes us back to the late 1800s, to her mother's childhood in San Francisco, and we see how similar the two women's lives truly are. Lulu was a headstrong girl who felt neglected by her parents and made bad decisions about men that eventually led her to her life in Shanghai. Near the end of the book, we meet Violet's daughter Flora and see how--was it inevitable?--her life is replicating some of the same experiences in the same generation.

Amy Tan returns to the theme of mother-daughter relationships that began her career in The Joy Luck Club, but here the generations are reversed--the mother grew up in the United States, the daughter in China.  Despite the length of The Valley of Amazement, the treatment of the relationship seems shallow--essentially, Tan seems to be saying "No matter how much you resent your mother, you are doomed to repeat her mistakes." For me, one of the challenges of reading this book was not judging the characters--especially their parenting decisions--by 21st-century American standards. Many of their decisions strained credulity, but I had to remember that transportation was difficult then, women's choices were severely constricted, they were living in a different culture, there was a world war going on for part of the time, etc., etc.

Tan obviously did an incredible amount of research for the book and, if you are interested in the world of the courtesan in early 20th-century Shanghai, this is the book for you. For someone only mildly curious about that world, there is perhaps too much detail. Not unexpectedly perhaps, that detail includes many descriptions of sexual experiences ranging from the hideously violent to the mildly unpleasant to (occasionally) the ecstatic. (I am quite positive I have never read a book that used the word pudenda so frequently.)

I finished the book, but I wouldn't recommend it unless you do want to learn about courtesans and sexual politics in Shanghai 100 years ago. If you haven't read Tan's earlier works, I'd definitely recommend picking up one of them rather than The Valley of Amazement.

Favorite passage:
“I was returning with myself whole and unbroken—limbs, mind, and spirit. I had discarded pride, that useless burden of self-importance” 

(My favorite passage was actually a Whitman quote that Violet sometimes repeated: Rebel much. Obey little.)

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