Using a cherished family photo for inspiration, Amy Tan has produced a moving, beautifully constructed (and lengthy) novel. While researching a novel about Shanghai, Tan came across photos taken in Shanghai in the early 1900’s. Tan came across one photo that was similar to a photo of her grandmother. In it, Tan’s grandmother is dressed similarly to the early 20th century courtesans of Shanghai. While Tan had no idea if her grandmother was actually a courtesan or this was simply a photo studio costume, it led her to imagine the lives of these women, most of whom had no other options for surviving on their own.
Thus was born The Valley of Amazement. This is a complex tale of an American woman who operates a courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 20th century. Lulu Minturn is raising her daughter, Violet, in Hidden Jade Path, a first class courtesan house catering to both Chinese and westerners. Lulu is estranged from her San Francisco family. Lulu’s poor decisions lead to Violet’s becoming a Shanghai courtesan while Lulu returns to San Francisco.
Most of this novel revolves around Violet’s life. Violet struggles to survive as she becomes older, and less desirable. Also, the world is changing rapidly and the courtesans are becoming less fashionable. While Violet adapts to what she views as her mother’s abandonment, she is also searching for love and a permanent place in the world.
About 3/4 of the way through the book, the focus turns to Lulu, and how she ended up a single mother in Shanghai. We learn of her struggles with her San Francisco family. We see how her impulsive decisions led her down a difficult path. Lulu’s relationship with Violet’s father is is troubled, and of course this complicates Violet’s emotions and her dealings with men.
Despite its length, The Valley of Amazement was a quick read. As with Amy Tan’s other novels, the compelling story and sympathetic characters made me want to keep reading. I highly recommend this fine novel.
Published in hardcover-Ecco-2013
Softcover edition to be published-Ecco-July 2014