Book Review: The Valley of Amazement
Posted January 14, 2015on:
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, HarperCollins, 2013, 589 pp.
This is Amy Tan’s most epic novel to date. As always, she crosses generations and continents, with a dual emphasis on relationships between mothers and daughters, and the coming together of Chinese and American cultures. Unfortunately, the epic length of this book is not supported by a story or characters worthy of nearly 600 pages. While it was a good story, well written and new, it felt slow and excessive, like it was altogether too much information. I would have adored the story if it had been less than 400 pages (and, yes, I think it could have been told just as well in that span–somethings were just unnecessary). Even so, Tan’s writing and a compelling setting saved the day.
The story centers on Violet, a young girl who is the daughter of a Chinese man and American woman, being raised in a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai at the beginning of the 20th century. Her mother, Lulu/Lucia/Lucretia, is the owner of the courtesan house, which specializes in bringing together Western and Chinese businessmen. Her mother partners with Golden Dove, a Chinese courtesan who helped her start the business. Violet and her mother never find an easy intimacy as mother and daughter (this is an Amy Tan book, after all). MILD SPOILERS HERE: Events when Violet is 14 lead to a forced separation, as her mother sails to America and Violet is sold as a courtesan. A former courtesan from her mother’s house, Magic Cloud, becomes her companion and advisor. The book then explores the way a particular pattern of both circumstances and attitudes plays out across three generations.
Most of the story is Violet’s, and the book would have been better if it had remained so. The lengthy back-story about Lulu was interesting, but it could have been told with much greater brevity. The back-story of the third generation in the last 100 pages felt wholly unnecessary (to avoid spoilers, I won’t tell you whether it’s Violet’s daughter or grandmother). None of the main characters (Violet, Lulu and the additional generation) were exceptionally memorable or compelling. It was the two supporting characters–Golden Dove and Magic Cloud–who are the most interesting and compelling. There are a cast of male characters, too, with some good stories and backgrounds.
What made the book worthwhile was the setting. Amy Tan did extensive research into life in Shanghai in the early 20th century, into the roles of the courtesans, into life in Chinese farming villages, and more. She does a beautiful job of capturing that world and bringing it to life. In my imagination, I could picture everything she described–the rooms, the streets, the mountains, the men and women in the courtesan houses, even the subtlety of gestures and silent acknowledgements. I felt the strain and restraint of the prescribed roles in Chinese families and society. That part of the book is masterful, compelling, and fascinating. I enjoyed it very much, even as found myself wading through much of the rest.
The Valley of Amazement would have benefited from a more rigorous editor, but it’s still worth reading, if you’ve got the time to read a really good 400 page novel that lasts for 600 pages.