Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

In her newest novel, The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan returns to the theme of mother-daughter relationships, the pain of abandonment, and the exaltation of the independent woman. After listening to her speak at the Pittsburgh Arts and Lecture's Literary evening, it is apparent that she is consumed by her past and the desire to fit all the pieces of her ancestral story together. The Valley of Amazement is a worthy piece in that puzzle, tho not without some fault.

Narrated by the seven-year old Violet Minturn, daughter of an American courtesan in early 20th century Shanghai, The Valley of Amazement  takes the reader on a journey through the brothels and the life as a courtesan. It begins in media res, when the reader is introduced to  Violet's mother, Lulu/Lucia (one of many names by which she is called). She runs a fairly lucrative business that enables her to connect with the wealthy men of the city. They bring her gifts of money in exchange for the services of the women of Hidden Jade Path.  Throughout the lengthy book, there are insights into to this life in the small enclave of Shanghai. Tan even includes a very descriptive manual for the courtesan as Violet's mentor and protector, Magic Gourd, shares the expectations for Violet's future life. 

One soon becomes acquainted with the visitors of the brothel and the shadiness of some of them who are users and unscrupulous. Their actions leave one outraged and sympathetic for the women, some mere children, whose lives are so dependent upon them. The preparations that a young woman must endure for her defloration ceremony and the ensuing act are abhorrent to the western world. To understand such a culture leaves one incredulous. Through twists and turns Violet and Magic Gourd come to rely upon each other for survival, both physical and spiritual. At this point Tan turns back the pages to the youth of Lucia and offers the explanation of the circumstances that took her to China. It maybe that she addresses that part of the story too late for the reader to have much sympathy for her plight.  To say much more about Violet, Magic Gourd, Edward Ivory, Flora, and Lucia, would give too much insight into the story and yield too many spoilers.

The Valley of Amazement was a bit tedious at the start. However, as one became more familiar with the characters, it the pace at which one read increased. One expected the plot to come full circle and it did not disappoint. Amy Tan is a great storyteller, a trait that displayed so magically in her lecture. She is haunted by her past and as a reader one is drawn into that same realm. There is hurt and love in everyone's lives and she, her characters, and the readers by extension all experience it. It is a mark of
Amy Tan autographing The Valley of Amazement
the human condition and her audience is grateful for her providing a catharsis.

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