Amy Tan tackles prostitution in new novel | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Successful novelists are often successful because they’re mastered a form or a style that becomes identified with them. A perfect example is Amy Tan.


The American child of Chinese immigrants drew from her own family’s secrets when she wrote her defining first novel, 1987’s “The Joy Luck Club,” a book that became a worldwide hit and spawned a 1993 motion picture adaptation.


Since then, Tan has been writing novels that follow both the thematic and structural framework of “Joy Luck,” being about the tension between Chinese and American identity, the often scandalous secrets of family and the relationships between mothers and daughters, all aided by revelations right at the very end. Tan followed this formula from 1991’s “The Kitchen God’s Wife” to 2000’s “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” only diverting from it with the unusual “Saving Fish from Drowning” in 2005.


Tan returns to her element and then some with her sixth novel, “The Valley of Amazement” by Amy Tan (Ecco, New York, 2013, 589 pages).


“Amazement” begins in Shanghai, China, in 1905 and centers on the early years of Violet Minturn, the child of the American Lucretia “Lulu” Minturn, the woman who runs Shanghai’s most popular courtesan house, a place known to the Westerners as Hidden Jade Path, and to the Chinese as “the House of Lulu Mimi.”  The novel’s title refers not to a particular place but a Chinese oil painting that figures prominently in the book both because of what it portrays and what it represents.


Violet is in denial that her father is Chinese, insisting that she is completely an American and thus a world removed from all that surrounds her in Shanghai’s International Settlement. But when her mother is tricked into leaving her, Violet is sold into a life she deemed impossible, as the teenaged virgin courtesan at Madam Li’s Hall of Tranquility.


“I became a different girl, a lost girl without a mother,” Violet thinks. “I was neither American nor Chinese. I was not Violet nor Vivi nor Zizi. I now lived in an invisible place made of my own dwindling breath, and because no one else could see it, they could not yank me out of it.” She realized she was now trapped. “I was a kidnapped American girl caught in an adventure story in which the latter chapters had been ripped out.”


She is taken under the wing of the kindly courtesan Magic Gourd, who instructs her thus: “As a courtesan, you must work toward the Four Necessities: jewelry, furniture, a seasonal contract with a stipend and a comfortable retirement. Forget about love.” This part of “Amazement” is like the Shanghai version of Arthur Golden’s 1997 novel, “Memoirs of a Geisha.”


Highs and lows


The book then launches into a lengthy chronicle of Violet’s career as a courtesan, and the life that follows is full of wonderful highs and terrible lows. Tan’s female protagonists tend to be good people to whom horrible things happen and that’s exactly what happens with “Amazement.” Somewhat oddly paced, the novel’s entire middle drags just as Violet reaches the worst point. Then “Amazement” thankfully pivots to a completely direction in San Francisco before getting tied up in the end, perhaps a little too neatly.


Full of exposition and epistolary sequences, this last portion of “Amazement” is full of answers pressed together and also features Tan’s trademark shifting narrators, though the vast majority of the book is told from Violet’s point of view.


“You are never satisfied with the amount of love you have,” Violet is told. “You want more and you suffer from never being able to have enough. And even though more may be in front of you, you don’t see it.”


The best part of “Amazement” is Violet, a complicated, emotional character who will make the reader withstand all the sadness and treachery in the hopes of finding a happy ending for her. With her mixed ancestry, secret-filled past and her endless desire to find happiness in difficult societal situations, Violet is very much a part of Tan’s personal literary adventure.


“The Valley of Amazement” makes for a fascinating if painful place to visit for readers seeking to be transported to a different place and time-inhabited by strongwilled female protagonists—to greet the New Year.



Available in paperback at National Book Store.

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