Another examination of complex mother-daughter relationships, this one set against the backdrop of 1912 Shanghai, then moving to the U.S. west coast and back again to China across a span of 40 years. The primary narrator is Violet, a little girl living in Shanghai with her savvy American mother turned madam of a highly specialized courtesan house which caters to Chinese and American businessmen and politicians, and successfully mixes business deals with sex. Violet is proud of her American heritage, until she discovers one day that her supposedly dead father is alive and Chinese. Her carefully-constructed identity of being somehow different and apart from the courtesans and servants who make up her world crumbles.
A series of tragic events separates the teenaged Violet from her mother—who is tricked into returning to the U.S. without her—and Violet gets sold to a rival courtesan house where she is readied to be auctioned off as a “virgin courtesan” to the highest bidder. The Valley of Amazement follows Violet’s life as a “privileged” slave through its many rises and falls, loves and betrayals, hopes and tragedies, but along the way and against great odds, she comes to terms with her American and Chinese halves and is the stronger for it. The novel then turns to Violet’s mother’s life, and how she ended up in China, a story which has unique parallels to Violet’s own, and we slowly begin to fathom some of the mysteries which have held these women hostage for so many years. Ultimately, the two women’s paths cross again.
Tan is a master at exploring mother-daughter trials and tribulations, and despite some rather obvious contrivances to make it all fit together, this novel is mostly effective in giving us two strong-willed women who survive great disappointment and tragedy to forge themselves new lives and, ultimately, to learn how to love again. Tan’s biggest weakness in this novel, I felt, is the lack of historical context. Yes, we know we begin in imperial China and we know that the dynasty is dying, but everything remains almost static from that point onward, as if Tan had created a vacuum for Violent to grow up in, the easier to indulge in endless descriptions of courtesan life and sexual fantasy. Titillating though they may appear, even these scenes get boring after a while and the lives of courtesans as Tan presents them come off rather too gilded to be true.