In 19th-century Shanghai, being a courtesan was a valid career option for a woman. Considered artists rather than prostitutes, courtesans were trained in the art of appearance and seduction, providing entertainment, relaxation, social status and sex to Shanghai businessmen. After the collapse of China’s imperial dynasty in 1911, courtesan houses lost their purpose and luster, and courtesans were reduced in social standing to luxury prostitutes. In her new novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” Amy Tan covers this time in China’s history through the eyes of two strong-willed women fighting for love and independence within a culture that denies them these things. It is a sweeping epic covering 50 years, two continents and three generations.
As in “The Joy Luck Club,” Tan explores the clash between East and West, male and female, tradition and modernity. She takes readers across sweeping vistas of landscape and time (from a bustling Shanghai to a remote Chinese village) and into scenes of domestic detail (the needlework of a frog clasp, the machinations of courtship and sex).
The novel begins in 1905 in a courtesan house in Shanghai run by Lulu Mintern. Lulu’s daughter, Violet, a curious imp who spies on courtesans and feels uppity toward them, narrates the story. When Violet is 14, Lulu tries to flee to the United States but is double-crossed and accidentally boards the boat without Violet. Tragically left behind, Violet is sold to a second-rate courtesan house. Having no other means to survive, she resigns herself to that life.
For 14 years, Violet entertains lovers of varying significance. She has a child with one, an American, and momentarily escapes the life, living for three idyllic years with him and their daughter. After he dies, however, relatives swoop in from New York and steal 3-year-old Flora away. Violet, like Lulu, is helpless to reclaim her child.
The story then shifts to Lulu, who has lived all this time in San Francisco under the impression that Violet is dead. Eventually the truth comes out, and mother and daughter reconnect through letters. Both aggrieved, they work together to find Flora, who, like her mother and grandmother, is headstrong and belligerent — but eventually becomes the glue that reunites the three generations.
Although the novel bogs down in the middle with disproportionate description of life as a courtesan, it mostly clips along as characters travel a collision course toward each other. The last third of the book is especially compelling as the point of view changes to Lulu and all that has happened in her life. All told, the novel is like a 3-D picture in which the disparate lives of Lulu, Violet and Flora — all victims of betrayal — come into focus. In the end, truth is revealed and the women realize that no one was abandoned and that maternal love trumps all.
Christine Brunkhorst is a writer and critic in Minneapolis.