Valley Of Amazement Book CoverTan’s Most Powerful Novel: Coming of Age as a Courtesan

Author: Amy Tan

Centered on the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, The Valley of Amazement is Amy Tan’s breakout novel of a young girl, half American and half Chinese, abandoned by a selfish mother and sold to a courtesan house. Growing up, Violet had everything. A spoiled child with a claw happy kitty, she lived within the ostentatious grace of her American mother, Lulu Minturn’s, famed courtesan house. An established Madame with a sense for business and the ability to integrate warring cultures, Lulu’s establishment is renowned for both elegance and entertainment (both socially and privately).

In this strange world, Violet Minturn struggles with her mother’s fading love. As a small child she was cherished, as a slightly older child she sees her disinterested mother fading away, captivated by the lies of suitors and the strange call of a secret past. Forgetting her daughter, making arrangements for dinners and birthday gifts and failing to show up, Lulu’s distance convinces Violet that she has never been loved. When the one courtesan who does show the lonely girl some kindness, Magic Cloud, is banished from the house, Violet’s resentment grows and she begins spying on her mother to learn where her true affections lie.

When her mother shuts down her popular house and heads for America, a series of incidents and betrayals leaves Violet stranded. Sold for revenge to a sub-par courtesan house, drugged and abused, Violet’s willful nature is no match for the extreme nature of her circumstances. As Violet’s training begins, days grow into weeks which grow into months, and Violet soon realizes that there will be no rescue from her new life. As fate would have it, however, the benevolent courtesan from her mother’s house, now named Magic Gourd, is willing to take the girl under her wing and open her eyes to a seething world of trickery, secrets, and woven, false dreams. Betrayed, abandoned to the infamy of her non-white and simultaneously non-Chinese status, Violet grows into the courtesan life seeking love and lovers where there are none, looking for fulfillment when there is only betrayal, and always carrying the hard knot of hatred in her heart for her mother and her father – the instigators of her sudden destruction.

The Valley of Amazement is a difficult novel to summarize. Dodging classification, the 600+ page story is essentially the epic of a lifetime. At times it is a coming-to-terms with parental betrayal novel, at other times it’s a novel about friendship and the classification of a true mother. Sometimes, the story is a coming-of-age tale, a love story, a heart-break story, a discourse on loss, a story of forgiveness, and a story of violent revenge. Shanghaiing readers (literally!) the narrative is a veritable opus for Tan. Yes, the typical mother/daughter relationship motif and the anger that goes into the love within this complex relationship is highlighted, but it’s so much more. It’s certainly more than the sex and cheap thrills of the courtesan world and while it’s-real-world gritty, with the adult knowledge of suffering and intrigue that plays off of emotions and manipulates circumstances, it’s also a sensitive and emotive story. How do you classify all of this? Where do you even begin to talk about a story that unfolds as someone’s life and takes readers along the entire journey – both the good and the bad times.

The story does have distinct sections, which could almost be seen as volumes within the narrative of Violet’s life and her dawning realizations. First, there is her childhood dealing with issues of abandonment and her own shock at discovering her mixed heritage. Here, Violet isn’t a likable child, by any means, yet her voice is compelling and the mystery shrouding the enigmatic Lulu is just as inescapable as it is tragic.

The next portion of the novel, and perhaps proportionally the longest, is Violet’s stint as a courtesan after her mother’s perceived betrayal. Transitioning from a spoiled and all-too-frank child, Violet must learn subtlety, obedience, perceptiveness, and most importantly, a sense of compassion. Growing away from the unlikable although captivating child, Violet’s pride and haughty nature hardly protect her heart from the delusions of youth. When her virginity is sold, Violet falls in love with her benefactor, which will only lead to more heartaches.

And so the story goes, morphing along the way. We follow Violet through her successful career as a courtesan, into her first marriage and child, the ill-fated Flora, her time pretending to be a white woman, back to the life of an aging courtesan, into an abusive relationship and trickery, and finally into old age and a sense of balance. Each step of the way oscillates between internal and external conflicts. Magic Gourd’s lengthy proclamations of the courtesan’s rules, mixed with Violet’s own growing knowledge, comment on human nature, specifically the disillusioned relationships between men and women and the longing of people for the past. Violet’s experience, so far removed from our own, is still highly relatable as she searches for more than just security but looks for an emotional connection to supersede her sense of early childhood betrayal. As a young woman, we painfully watch Violet’s mixed perceptions of the world deceive her about her suitors’ true natures and then later, we watch her pain and bitterness slam doors and we wonder: just what is the right choice? Interspersed between these contemplative moments of emotional pain and mental turmoil, Tan peppers some dangerous, baited scenes, especially toward the end when Violet is no longer looking for love, but attempting to find a way to survive.

The Valley of Amazement is truly a roller-coaster, and this review hardly contains its true essence. There are moments of hilarity when Magic Gourd gives some of her uncensored remarks on life and those she doesn’t like which transform into the poignancy of loss or recognition. The tale, despite its oscillations, is all about the confusion of trying to find a way in this world – of trying not to hurt and not to be hurt. Most affectingly, there is the element of forgiveness and a certain grace that comes with maturity mistakes. Violet and Magic Gourd, the two starring characters, are real by the end and while the epilogue-like denouement went on too long to sustain the force of the climax and the celebration of the story, readers hardly feel the need to nit-pick after such an unforgettable reading experience. Tan’s work here doesn’t render a story, but follows a journey and takes the reader along to live another life in another time as though it were right now.

*A Note on Edition: I listened to the unabridged recording of The Valley of Amazement performed by Nancy Wu and Joyce Bean. Violet’s narration was natural and expressive, whereas the reading for Magic Gourd was a little too trite – a quiet, non-emotive rendering of advice that didn’t spark with Magic Gourd’s vibrant personality. Nevertheless, the audio edition was a mostly enjoyable and entirely engaging experience with authentic Chinese pronunciations which enabled readers to further enter the bygone world of Shanghai courtesans.

–        Frances Carden

Frances Carden
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