A blog by the staff of the Thomas Ford Memorial Library
Over the years, I have enjoyed reading Amy Tan’s novels. She is a good writer, and I always feel transported by her words into the heart of China (or in one case, Burma). In most of her novels there has been an American component, perhaps a younger generation being raised in the States, trying to understand the old ways and traditions of their parents. The Valley of Amazement was a little different in this regard, with the American mother leaving Shanghai for the States and (unintentionally) leaving her half-Chinese daughter, Violet, behind.
Violet’s mother, Lucia, had moved to Shanghai in 1897 with her Chinese lover when she was pregnant with Violet. Through circumstances that are not revealed until late in the novel, she became a madam, operating an upscale courtesan house. This is where Violet grew up until her mother fled and, through deceit and trickery, did not have Violet with her when the ship left the port. Violet was sold to a courtesan house at the age of 13.
Most of the book follows Violet’s life as a courtesan. For me the most interesting aspect of this book was its portrayal of Shanghai in the early 20th century, after the Opium Wars had left foreign powers dominating China’s trade, and Shanghai’s Chinese population excluded from the European concessions. I enjoyed learning about the role that courtesan houses played in the business world of Shanghai during this time, and in introducing Western culture to the Chinese. These were not common houses of prostitution: Courtesans were courted over time by their suitors, and elaborate parties were held, sometimes in their honor. This was one of the few places where both Chinese and non-Chinese businessmen were allowed, and where business deals could be brokered, often — if this novel is accurate — with the help of the madams who ran the houses.
The inspiration for this story came to Amy Tan when she discovered an old photo of some courtesans who were attired in the same type of clothing as in an old photo of her grandmother, bringing her to wonder about her grandmother’s story. The acknowledgements at the beginning of the book describe her research and travels in preparation for writing this novel.
Although I did enjoy reading this book, I would have liked it better if it had been shorter. I sometimes lost patience with Violet and the plights she got herself into, and was ready for the story to end about 150 pages before it did. I also sometimes found the characters’ actions improbable from an emotional standpoint. These minor complaints notwithstanding, it was a good read.
Review by Nancy