Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

You know, when I stumbled past Amy Tan being interviewed at last year's Book Expo America, I had to stop and listen, even though that's not what was on my itinerary. She's just an interesting lady! I put The Valley of Amazement (HarperCollins - Ecco) on my to-read list, and received a copy for Christmas, and since it's (for me) catching up on things not YA/fantasy/SF season, I grabbed the book out of the vast pile that I'm trying to pare down. (Books are going in boxes for a variety of reasons, and I won't see them again for a while.) I noted that I haven't read anything of Tan's in a while, but I think I thought I had because The Joy Luck Club is so often excerpted for tests and reading curricula.


This is a commitment of a book. It's quite long, and it's quite harrowing. Lulu Minturn runs a brothel in Shanghai in 1905, one where locals and foreigners can meet to mingle and do business as well as do business. Her daughter, Violet, is absolutely American until she realizes she isn't, and that her father is Chinese. The Qing dynasty comes to an end, and the plan to go to the United States, but one of Lulu's paramours tricks Lulu into leaving Violet for dead, and the paramour sells Violet to another brothel. There, she must be perfectly Chinese to survive.

There are a lot of themes I like in this book. One is long-term friendships between women; another is the love (and sometimes difficulty) of navigating relationships among several generations of women in the same family who have grown up under very different sets of rules. Another is recognizing, appreciating, and enjoying love--and understanding what love is not. Yet another is forgiveness. And another resilience. Another navigating being part of two very separate backgrounds.

I enjoyed the historical setting, largely because there's a focus on the everyday--what people ate, thought, wore. (I am not familiar enough to speak to its accuracy; I assume that some details are brutally honest, some changed to support the story.) I liked that the women here are complex--sometimes sympathetic, sometimes unlikeable, sometimes making choices or holding attitudes I think they shouldn't. I liked that the brothels aren't allowed to be too nice, even when we're nice; just when you think Violet is safe, we're reminded that even though this is fiction, it's based on a harsh reality. (It's too easy to be enchanted by the surface details of beauty and art and forget that the end result is sex for money with girls, and when they fall from grace, the rest of their lives can be short and violent. Details are not held back.) I thought that Violet's pull to be parts of two worlds and two races was interestingly mutable as she incorporated outside influences with her own feelings (and her observations and decisions are much more thoughtful than those of others, who want to simplify her at every turn).

It seemed to me that some spots in the book, particularly lengthy character monologues, replaced even lengthier sections that had had to be cut. I understand that Tan spent a lot of time with family and guides researching The Valley of Amazement, so she probably had more material than could be incorporated, and I sometimes wished for more polishing of those bits. However, everything else flew by, and I really was engaged by Violet and the other women who get a bit of narrator time. I'd recommend this for fans of Memoirs of a Geisha and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, as well as for readers who like imperfect family relationships, sweeping historical stories, and friendships.

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