After an absence of four years, Amy Tan is back with a new and provocative novel guaranteed to cause ripples among critics and readers alike. Tan’s books often deal with mother-daughter relationships, tapping her Chinese-American roots for the familial complexities that arise in the culture clash of East and West. It comes as no surprise that the underlying theme of THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT addresses these differences, but Lucia and Violet are unlike any mother and daughter we’ve met in Tan’s work and perhaps anywhere else. The action takes place at the turn of the 20th century in San Francisco and Shanghai during and after the fall of the Qing Dynasty.
We first meet Violet at age seven living with her American-born mother, Lucia Minturn, the madam of Hidden Jade Path, a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai. Lucia left San Francisco at age 17 to follow the Chinese artist who fathered her unborn child. The promise of marriage and life in a prestigious Chinese family collapses as a thousand years of Chinese culture intervene, and Lucia is left to raise Violet on her own. Violet’s Caucasian features do not hint of her Chinese ancestry, and she is raised and educated as an American. With the aid of a friend, Lucia opens a tea house that evolves into Hidden Jade Path, and Violet has been carefully sheltered from her mother’s profession. Lucia is tricked into leaving behind her daughter, who is now 14, and the adventures of Violet, the Virgin Courtesan, begin.
"Tan’s books often deal with mother-daughter relationships, tapping her Chinese-American roots for the familial complexities that arise in the culture clash of East and West. It comes as no surprise that the underlying theme of THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT addresses these differences, but Lucia and Violet are unlike any mother and daughter we’ve met in Tan’s work and perhaps anywhere else."
The back story on how THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT came about is almost as provocative as the novel itself. Tan had been researching the time period at the end of the Qing Dynasty when a thousand years of imperialism came to an abrupt halt. Always in touch with women’s issues, she wanted to explore the plight of women who had been treated as chattel for centuries when they were confronted with a whole new world. It was during her research for this historical novel that she came across a photo of “The Ten Beauties of Shanghai.” They were courtesans (beauties was a euphemism for the oldest profession in the world) who had won a popularity contest in Shanghai. In the photograph is a woman who closely resembles a picture of her own grandmother, whose past has remained a mystery. Her elaborate clothing and jewelry were commonly worn only by courtesans.
From that revelation came the inspiration for the book. Thus beganan eight-year journey that took Tan to museums, libraries, art historians and scholars on the courtesan life. She polished up her rudimentary Chinese and traveled deep into the remote interior for the chapters on life in Moon Pond, an important element of the story.
Do you recall the sensational reaction to PEYTON PLACE and FANNY HILL? Move over Grace Metalious and John Cleland. Those books would no longer be the eye-poppers they were in the mid-20th century with today’s penchant for anything goes, but THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENTdeftly treats the subject with class and élan. The chapter titled “Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir”instructs the newcomer to Hidden Jade Path on how to build a clientele by creating illusions of love. The delicate euphemisms for body parts and positions, derived from extensive historical research on Tan’s part, are as imaginative and amusing as might be expected from a novelist with Tan’s customary and often witty approach to delicate subjects.
Tan jokingly refers to the book as “Fifty Shades of Tan.”Her one concern is that it might be thought to glamorize prostitution. The tragic lives of these unfortunate women may have seemed glamorous until the cruel reality set in. She says she “believes that sexual slavery is one of the biggest problems facing the world today.”
Are Amy Tan fans ready to travel to THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT? It will be interesting to watch the results. Bon voyage, armchair travelers.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on November 8, 2013