With her first novel in eight years, Amy Tan returns to the theme that she does so well: mothers and daughters. Spanning four generations and two continents, The Valley of Amazement tells us the story of Lucia (Lulu), her daughter Violet, Violet’s daughter Flora, and Magic Gourd, the courtesan who stood in as surrogate mother to Violet after her mother left her in Shanghai.
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.
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