The Valley of Amazement

by Amy Tan

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1620

Author: Amy Tan (b. 1952)

Publisher: Ecco (New York). 608 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 1897–1939

Locales: Shanghai and Moon Pond Village, China; San Francisco, California

Set mostly in early-twentieth-century Shanghai, Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement explores the fates of a young European American mother and her Chinese American daughter who live in Shanghai's scintillating world of high-class courtesans. Both women experience hardships and heartbreaks in their quest for love.

In The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan develops two complicated mother-daughter relationships set against the world of courtesans and madams in early-twentieth-century Shanghai. As a child, Violet Minturn grows up the pampered and spoiled daughter of European American Lucretia "Lulu" Minturn. Lulu is the madam of a high-class courtesan house. Violet is shocked to learn she has a Chinese father. This plunges her into a first identity crisis. It makes her suspicious of her mother as well.

Violet's life changes completely at fourteen. As she and her mother leave Shanghai for San Francisco, Violet is kidnapped by her mother's shady lover, Arthur Fairweather. She is sold to become a virgin courtesan. Her defloration is auctioned off to the highest bidder, young, rich Loyalty Fang. Angry with her mother for apparently abandoning her, Violet slowly comes to terms with her new life yet eventually tries to escape. Here, Tan turns to the point of view of Lulu, who reveals her own story.

Amy Tan's best-selling first novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989), marked the beginning of her career as one of the most-read Asian American authors. Her sixth novel, The Valley of Amazement (2013) explores complex family relations in Asian and Asian American settings.

(© Rick Smolan, Against All Odds Productions)

The story of Violet, Lulu, and Violet's daughter, Flora, is enriched by a great cast of well-developed characters, Chinese and American, male and female, encompassing the complete moral spectrum from good to morally ambiguous to evil. Tan's central characters in the novel are not always loveable, but rather show complex, multidimensional traits. They allow Tan to develop themes of female friendships as well as of male-female romantic entanglements. Tan's meticulous research brings to life the intriguing world of early twentieth-century Shanghai's upscale pleasure houses. Covering decades and employing many twists of fate and surprises, The Valley of Amazement is an engaging literary achievement that succeeds in drawing readers into its world.

Because it introduces Violet to the world of a courtesan, reader-reviewers have compared The Valley of Amazement to Arthur Golden's best seller Memoirs of a Geisha (1997). Yet Tan's novel focuses more strongly on compassionate relationships among her women characters. The bickering and jealousies of competing courtesans that make up so much of Golden's novel are relegated more to the background, while the strong female friendships between Violet and Magic Gourd and between Lulu and her business partner, Golden Dove, stand out. Another similar contemporary novel is Mingmei Yip's debut work, Peach Blossom Pavilion (2008). Like Violet, adverse circumstances force Yip's protagonist, Precious Orchid, into a high-class Shanghai courtesan house. Tan's approach is more multigenerational, however, giving voice to three generations of women.

One plot twist is particularly reminiscent of the climax of another well-known work, Giacomo Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly (1904; Madam Butterfly, 1906). After her time as teenage courtesan, twenty-year-old Violet meets the twenty-four-year-old American businessman Edward Ivory III. He falls in love with her. The only drawback is that back in New York, Edward is in a loveless marriage to Minerva. In Shanghai, Edward "marries" Violet, and she gives birth to their daughter, Flora. However, Edward dies of the historic Spanish influenza pandemic in 1919, and Minerva tracks down Violet and Flora by September 1922. As Edward's widow, Minerva claims Flora as her own and has the local police take screaming Flora from Violet's arms in one of the most emotionally harrowing scenes of The Valley of Amazement. Yet unlike Cio-Cio San (Madame Butterfly) in Puccini's opera, who gives up their son to her erstwhile husband B. F. Pinkerton and his new European American wife, Violet does not attempt suicide. Instead, she embarks on a years-long quest to reconnect with Flora, the outcome of which forms the climax of Tan's novel.

Initially, The Valley of Amazement is told through Violet, who is seven as her narrative begins in 1905. Through Violet, the reader is introduced to the world of her mother's courtesan house. Violet grows up in a carefree, home-schooled environment shaped by Lulu and her loyal Chinese partner Golden Dove, and the courtesans and the patrons. All this comes to an end for Violet when she is kidnapped instead of boarding the steamer to San Francisco with her mother in 1912.

Sold to a courtesan house, she is forcibly kept and prepared for her new profession. Tan deftly moves her plot along showing Violet's education in the ways of her new world. When Violet is fifteen, the dashing Loyalty Fang pays for her defloration. From there develops a romantic bond that remains unbroken throughout The Valley of Amazement, even though the two characters occasionally lose sight of each other for years and quarrel deeply. Violet appears rescued from life as courtesan as young American businessman Edward Ivory falls in love with her. They live together and have Flora Ivory. However, after Edward's untimely death, Violet loses Flora to the machinations of Minerva Ivory, Edward's legal wife. Especially later on, when Flora tells her own tale, Minerva emerges as an absolute anti-mother.

After Edward's death obviously prevents an early happy ending for Violet, she is tricked by devious Perpetual into becoming his concubine. At Perpetual's home in the remote countryside of Moon Pond Village, Violet is physically abused. Finally, she, Magic Gourd, and the second concubine Pomelo escape. Their flight forges a spiritual bond of sisterhood that contributes to one of the most moving and engaging passages of The Valley of Amazement.

About two thirds into the novel, the point of view switches to Lulu. Through Lulu's narrative, the reader detects a strong sense of parallelism with the fate of her daughter Violet. Readers may appreciate this consistently constructed and maintained literary device. On the other hand, it may strain realism and threaten to make Tan's characters look like chess pieces moved by the author's deft hand.

Through Lulu, the meaning of the novel's title is revealed. The Valley of Amazement refers to a series of paintings by Chinese landscape painter Lu Shing. It is while he is in San Francisco in 1897 that Lulu, who then called herself "Lucia," falls in love. Pregnant at sixteen, Lucia follows the artist to his native Shanghai. Rejected by Lu Shing there, she gives birth to their daughter Violet. Like Violet, Lucia appears to be saved when a gay European American friend of his, Philo Danner, takes her in. Like Edward, Philo Danner dies soon, leaving Lucia exposed to danger. As Violet is supported by Magic Gourd, Lucia becomes Madam Lulu with the help of the experienced courtesan Golden Dove. Like Violet's encounter with evil Perpetual, Lulu falls prey to the evil Arthur Fairweather. Once both Violet and Lulu have freed themselves of their unlucky romantic entanglements, the quest for them to reunite, and for Violet to find Flora again, becomes the motivation that drives The Valley of Amazement to its climactic conclusion.

In an interview with reviewer Bridget Kinsella for Publishers Weekly, Tan stated that she received inspiration for The Valley of Amazement from "a series of photographs taken of her grandmother in Shanghai circa 1910." These pictures of Tan's grandmother were taken in a Western studio. This, historians told Tan, would have been shocking for a Chinese woman to do during that time. From this clue, Tan entertained the idea that "like one in 100 women in Shanghai at the time, her grandmother might have been a courtesan." Tan took this idea to form the basis for her next novel. As a prelude, Tan composed a short story told in the form of advice given by an experienced courtesan, Magic Gourd, to the novice Violet. Entitled Rules for Virgins (2012), Tan produced her work as an audio book and e-book, and it later became chapter 4 of The Valley of Amazement, "Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir."

Critical reviews of The Valley of Amazement were generally positive. In sum, praise was given for Tan's intense portrayal of female relationships, particularly those of mothers and daughters. The prominence of equally strong bonds among sisters, either forged by biology or fate—which is the second dominant theme in Tan's novel—was not highlighted as much. Tan's meticulous research was lauded, as were her literary style and control over her plot. On the other hand, some critics and general readers voiced dissatisfaction with spoiled Violet and distant Lulu, what they saw as a convoluted plot with unrealistic twists, and many passages of historical detail contributing to an unwieldy overall length. Tan's novel nevertheless stands out for its rich cast of varied characters, even though some appear to merely serve a carefully constructed plot. Her extensive historical research weaves a rich tapestry against which her novel unfolds. Tan's witty, clear literary style successfully draws in readers willing to follow a substantial saga of three generations of exceptional women.

Review Sources

  • Cone, Edward. Rev. of The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan. Library Journal 1 Aug. 2013: 91. Print.
  • Downer, Lesley. "Ladies from Shanghai." Rev. of The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan. New York Times Book Review 8 Nov. 2013: BR10. Print.
  • Kinsella, Bridget. "Fifty Shades of Tan." Rev. of The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan. Publishers Weekly 12 Aug. 2013: 26–27. Print.
  • Rev. of The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan. Bookmarks Jan./Feb. 2014: 37. Print.
  • Ryan, Jennifer. "Tan's Lines." Rev. of The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan. Bookseller 1 Nov. 2013: 23. Print.
  • Rev. of The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan. New Yorker 25 Nov. 2013: 127. Print.

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