It is the rare book that causes a reader to laugh out loud, to cry with an aching heart and to finish the last page with a sigh of relief. Amy Tan’s newest novel, The Valley of Amazement, is a whopping 600 pages, but it is filled with adventure and excitement throughout.
The novel spans both time and multiple personal narratives, charting three generations of American and Chinese-American women. The story begins in the middle with Violet, a precocious young woman living with her mother in Shanghai. Violet’s mother, Lulu, is a high-class madam, the head of a famous courtesan house. Violet lives among the various courtesans, observing their manners and behaviors with men, learning at an early age what happens behind closed doors. Her premature understanding of the relationships between men and women create the illusion that Violet is older than her fourteen years of age.
Suddenly, Lulu decides that she is ready to leave Shanghai and return to her birthplace, San Francisco. Without explanation, she tells Violet to begin packing. Not afraid of any adventure, Violet obeys her mother, but wonders at the reason for this drastic move.
Due to corruption and cruel politics that dominate Shanghai of the turn of the twentieth century, Lulu is separated from Violet before they are able to board the ship. Without understanding where Violet is, Lulu is bound for a month-long trip to America without her daughter.
Meanwhile, Violet is kidnapped and brought to a courtesan house where she is forced to become a high-class mistress. At 14, Violet is tossed into a life a danger and sexual abuse, and is utterly deprived of happiness or love.
While the beginning of the novel is filled with frustrating events that fill readers with despair and make them want to pull their hair out, Violet’s life changes drastically over the course of the next decade. She eventually does find love, friendship and happiness, although sometimes she is stripped of everything, forced to rebuild it all again.
The turmoil of Violet’s story parallels Lulu’s, which Tan explains later in the novel. Together both women grow to learn how to care for themselves and learn to find love within, not from men or even from parents.
Amy Tan writes an exquisite tale about love and suffering. She creates characters who demonstrate the power of will and hope, while illustrating that sometimes, life can be terrible for no reason at all. The stories of Violet and Lulu (and later Flora, Violet’s daughter) are tragic but maintain a strong sense of dignity and hope. The pride both women have in their ability to survive is mesmerizing to read and inspiring to imagine.
The novel is a marathon; it is certainly not a book you can pick up and whip through. I highly recommend this incredible novel, but I must warn you: be ready for a wild ride.
The Valley of Amazement