The Valley of Amazement
If you are interested in immersing yourself in the elaborate culture of the Chinese courtesan’s life of the early 20th century, then this novel might be for you. The opulent, intriguing details provide a means for the reader to meet the two central characters, Lulu (a white American turned madam of the most popular courtesan house in Shanghai) and her Chinese-American daughter, Violet. We learn about the beautiful raiment of seduction, the sisterhood of the women who work there and their house rules. And then there are the grim realities of a culture dominated by men seeking pleasure – a courtesan whose career suddenly ends when a customer “knocked out her front teeth and broke half the bones in her face.” The reaction of the other women is less than sympathetic; after all, surely she must have done something to anger him. We are told all of this information through Tan’s luminous writing. Unfortunately, things move slowly through this introductory portion of the novel, and there’s little actual drama for over 100 pages of this long saga.
After that, Tan delves deeper into her customary themes of mother-daughter love, deception, emotional tension and search for redemption. Three generations of women – Lulu, Violet, and granddaughter Flora – care for and then desert one another. Settings include China during a tumultuous era that forces Lulu to leave the country and flee with her lover, back to California from whence she came. Violet is left to fend for herself as a virgin courtesan, and later has a child of her own. Traumatic mother-daughter relationships, a staple in Tan’s other popular novels, will be heartbreakingly familiar to her fans. But events in later portions of the novel sometimes confuse more than enlighten. Perhaps not Tan’s best work, but her fans won’t pass up a chance at her newest book.