The Valley of Amazement
Violet is the biracial daughter of Lulu Mintern, a white woman who runs a courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 1900s. As a very young girl, she is already exposed to the business of seduction. She is curious about the identity of her father, and jealous that Lulu does not pay enough attention to her.
When Violet is only 14, one of her mother’s schemeing ex-lovers separates mother and daughter and manages to get Violet sold as a courtesan. Luckily for Violet, the new courtesan house where she now works is also home to one of her mother’s former courtesans, Magic Gourd. Thanks to Magic Gourd’s training and protection, Violet (now going by ViVi) becomes a sucessful courtesan.
ViVi’s career has its challenges and its pleasures. She has a daughter, names her Flora, and then ends up losing her in a complicated inheritance struggle. She makes a very bad choice in marriage, leading to years of suffering for herself and Magic Gourd.
In the end, Vivi’s story does come full circle, and she gets answers to her questions about Lulu and Flora. Amy Tan’s stories are always, at their core, about mothers and daughters. There are generations of very complicated female relationships in Valley of Amazement, but the relationship at the heart of it ends up being between the two women who aren’t related at all: ViVi and Magic Gourd.
I am normally a huge fan of Amy Tan, and was very excited when she (finally) wrote another book. Unfortunately, I didn’t love Valley of Amazement as much as I wanted to. I had a hard time buying into the historically innacurate idea that China in the 1900s had a class of “courtesans” equivalent to Japan’s geishas, but still prostitutes. I also felt like Lulu’s story, when it was finally told, was at an odd place in the book (I would’ve put it a little later or much earlier.)
Finally, the thing I disliked most about this book was all the sex. Of course, in a book about a courtesan (or glorified prostitute), one expects some sex. But this book has graphic, gratuitious, and repeated sex scenes. Its coached in some language that is meant to seem both old-fashioned and Chinese, but I don’t think its accurate on either count. Perhaps the worst part about them is that the sex in question largely paid (not really consensual) sex with an underage prostitute.
You might like: Memoirs of A Geisha, Golden. Mandarin and Dynasty, Elegant.
Books I prefer by Amy Tan: Saving Fish From Drowning or Joy Luck Club.