The Valley of Amazement: A Novel by Amy Tan (HarperCollins, $16.99, 608 pages)
“…the night is always brighter than the day.” Bob Dylan (“Seven Days”)
Amy Tan’s seventh adult novel, The Valley of Amazement, is a triumph. In Valley, Tan, most noted for her debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, comes back with a vengeance after an eight-year hiatus.
As the story opens in 1905, main character Violet Minturn is a petulant child living with her mother, Lulu Mimi, who runs the courtesan house Hidden Jade Path. The title is rife with meaning and comes from a mysterious painting, the origins of which are revealed at the end of the story. It is Violet’s prized memory of her mother, who is coerced into abandoning Violet for her home country of America by corrupt Chinese gangsters.
As a result, Violet is forced into the courtesan lifestyle, losing her freedom and dignity. She becomes hardened
when her first love does not work out. She goes on to experience love again, only to endure more unthinkable tragedy. Only the most optimistic of sorts could hope for a happy ending after this, through there is closure.
In the bizarre reality of the courtesan culture, at least according to this novel, these women consider themselves noble with a higher status than ordinary prostitutes. Perhaps this is because they sign long-term contracts with one man, who, of course, possesses other courtesans in addition to his wife. Perhaps it is because they live a relatively comfortable lifestyle or can aspire to become a second or third wife. Most of them eventually do end up as prostitutes in their early 20s, at which point they are considered to be “old.” It’s not too difficult to make sense of it when one considers that Chinese women had to train their feet – through binding – to be not too big; something that was thought to be unattractive. Obviously, the culture was highly oppressive to women.
Chapter Four, in which Violet is trained in the nuances of her profession, is entitled “Etiquette for Beauties of Boudoir.” It reads like “Proverb for Courtesans,” which would have been highly interesting if it wasn’t seemingly so demented.
There are many examples of outstanding writing throughout the book. One example: “Those were the reasons we both know how deep love was, the shared pain that would outlast any pain we caused each other.” Tan is a master storyteller who, in this unique, troubling and amazing novel, lives up to her billing.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Dave Moyer is an educator, a sometime musician, and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.