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The Valley of Amazement

The Valley of Amazement
Amy Tan

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.

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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.

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Song of Willow Frost

Songs of Willow Frost
Jamie Ford

Ford’s first book, The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, was on my Top 10 list the year I read it. I did not like Willow Frost as much. Its a good book, and an enjoyable read- I just wasn’t able to connect with it as much.

William is the only Chinese boy in a San Francisco orphanage in 1934. On their one outing a year, he sees a beautiful Chinese movie star on the big screen, and becomes convinced she is his long-lost mother. This is the story of William’s search for Willow Frost. It is also the story of Willow herself- how she went from being the daughter of a penniless widow to being a movie star.

Both stories are well-drawn. They incorporate the historical climate of racism, war, and one of film’s golden eras. Through their eyes, the past comes alive in colorful- if oten sad- detail.

I felt like William’s story was strongest regarding his friends at the orphanage who became his partners in his search for Willow Frost. Sunny, another boy at the orphanage, is marginalized like William because he is Native American. Charlotte is a blind girl who still seems to have the clearest glimpse of William’s dreams for the future.

The strongest part of Willow’s story was the few chapters when she was happily in love- in between yeats of humiliation and abuse by her stepfather, and years of suffering and sacrifice as a single mother.

What made me most sad- and even angry- was not the people who outright abused the less powerful in this story- minorities,  women, children, single moms, and the disabled- but those who saw the abuse and did nothing.  For me, in the end, that’s what came through the strongest. Oh, it was a story about family, and love, and heritage. It was a story about what people will do for the people they love. But it also felt like a cautionary tale, about what can happen when we turn a blind eye to those in need around us.

Did William find his mom, and was she Willow Frost? I’ll let you read the book to find out. But William discovers that he was always loved- by his friends, his mother, and even the nuns at the orphanage. Willow discovers her own capacity for strength,  beauty and love.

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You might like: Bonesetters Daughter, Amy Tan.

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The Ghost Bride

The Ghost Bride
Yangsze Choo

Li Lan, a young Chinese woman in Malaysia, has few marriage prospects. Since her mother died, she has been raised by her amah (nanny) and her opium-addict father has been largely absent. There has been no one to arrange a marriage for Li Lan, although she has entertained dreams of a new, modern love match. Understandably, Li Lan is shocked when her father tells her the Lim family has approached him about making her a “ghost bride” to their dead son. She would be married to the dead son and then live her life in the Lim household as a widow, without ever getting to be a wife.
When, on a preliminary visit to the Lim house, Li Lan meets a handsome servant man, I thought, “I know where this is going.” Turns out I underestimated the author.
Yangsze Choo has written a novel that rises above the usual tales of unhappily arranged marriage and ill-fated love matches. Li Lan journeys to the spirit world, where she discovers that her marriage prospects are far more complicated than she ever imagined.
I have read more than a few novels set in Chinese culture, not only past and present but also largely fictional. This is one of the best. The writing reminded me of the late, great Pearl S. Buck. Was it the vivid descriptions of sights, smells and tastes in both this world and the next? Was it the carefully drawn unspooling of intrigue involving players living and dead alive? Was it the character of Li Lan herself on her inner journey from naivete to choosing love? Maybe it was all of that; regardless, I’m a fan.

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You might like: Pearl of China, Anchee Min. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See. Saving Fish from Drowning, Amy Tan. Pavilion of Women, Pearl S. Buck