Historical Fiction/Drama/Romance

The Valley of Amazement

Written By: Amy Tan

Published By: HarperCollins Publishers

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


                After hearing my sister rave about The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan and how the author seems to have a special understanding of mother/daughter relationship dynamics, I decided I would read the book for myself.  But a number of issues prevented this from happening.  Then I heard that Amy Tan had come out with a new book and that it was getting rave reviews.  I decided to check out The Valley of Amazement instead.  Of course, I bought the book a year ago and am just now getting a chance to review it.

                The Valley of Amazement is a novel that is actually told in two parts Ė through the eyes of the mother and the eyes if the daughter.  First, we are introduced to Violet Minturn, a young girl growing up in her mother Luluís courtesan house, The Hidden Jade Path.  Violet at first feels tremendously loved by her mother, but, as she approaches her teenage years, she finds her mother paying less and less attention to her and more attention to the political climate and how it might affect her business.

                After the fall of the Qing Dynasty and owing to her motherís misplaced trust, Lulu finds herself on a ship to America without her daughter Violet.  Sold to a rival courtesan house as a virgin, Violet finds herself in a position she never could have imagined.  Thanks to the gangsters her motherís former lover owes money to, Lulu is led to believe Violet is dead and Violet is unable to prove her status as an American citizen

Violet must learn what being a courtesan is all about, but thankfully, one of her motherís former courtesans, Magic Gourd, takes her under her wing, teaching her everything she needs to know as much to further her own career as to protect Violet.  Becoming a first-class courtesan, Violet finds herself sought after by a number of suitors, but one in particular, offers her a life outside of the courtesanís house. 

Unfortunately, Violetís happy life with her new husband and daughter is cut short by the Spanish influenza and the kidnapping of her daughter.  Violet returns to her former career, but the political climate changes yet again and, seeking to escape the problematic atmosphere of Shanghai, finds herself tricked into a loveless and abusive marriage with no clear avenue of escape.

We then learn the story of Violetís mother Lulu and how she ended up owner of a courtesan house in Shanghai from her beginnings in a cultured, yet dysfunctional family.  The reader will note a similarity between Luluís feelings about her parents and their attitude towards her and Violetís feelings about her mother and her perceived inattentiveness. 

And yet, as with most of the major female characters in The Valley of Amazement, we find in Violet and Lulu strength in character that, when combined, successfully track down Violetís daughter in America.  When they finally meet, we learn that this strength of character has somehow been passed down through the family lines to Flora, Violetís daughter, who has undergone some difficult times in a loveless family which she somehow knew she never belonged to.

Writing fan fiction for years, I always joke with other fanfic writers regarding the hell we put our characters through, inventing more innovative ways for them to suffer and either survive or succumb.  Amy Tan apparently enjoys doing the same thing with her characters, not only with Lulu and Violet, but with Flora, Magic Gourd and other characters whose suffering and survival we learn about through stories narrated by the characters themselves. 

Iím a sucker for strong female characters and this book is full of them.  Sure, these characters will drive the reader to distraction as they make mistakes we can see coming, but the strength of persistence of these characters and their decision not to let these mistakes destroy them.  You find yourself so invested in these characters and their futures that you canít put the book down.  I found myself looking for opportunities to read with whatever seconds I could get in between eating, sleeping and work. 

Fortunately, The Valley of Amazement is a fast read.  Itís also a thoroughly enjoyable read, much in the vein of Memoirs of a Geisha, that has inspired me to read other Amy Tan books.  Iím glad my sister enjoyed The Joy Luck Club or I may never have tried Amy Tanís The Valley of Amazement, a novel well worth the read.


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