A daughter, her mother, and the daughter’s daughter tell their stores of life in China and America, from the late 1800s for another fifty years: lives involving courtship, courtesan houses, tragedy, power, patronage. Amy Tan’s latest book, The Valley of Amazement, feels like it’s both formal and intimate, trashy and yet telling stories that women have been telling for centuries.
Lulu Mimi runs a first-class courtesan house and cross-cultural business club in 1910s Shanghai, allowing her precocious and strong-willed daughter Violet to grow herself up: watching the balance of power play out between the courtesans, their suitors, and her mother presiding over the whole business. Violet’s childish self-assuredness is rocked when she discovers her mother’s weakness for bad lovers, and a younger brother she never knew who was taken away. The aforementioned bad lover, under the guise of reuniting Lulu and son again, separates the mother and daughter, sending Lulu to San Francisco and selling Violet to a second-rate courtesan house, eager to auction off her ‘deflowering’.
If this all sounds a bit soapy, maybe it is, but the cultural context which filters in and affects the characters’ lives in ways even they don’t understand make this a stronger, truer story. The establishment of the first Republic of China, overthrowing the Ching dynasty, rocks Lulu’s establishment, and new money, new classes, new expectations and new foreigners come into Violet’s life as one of the most desired courtesans in Shanghai.
While the characterisation is somewhat stereotypical (the shy Chinese maid; the spurned woman; the evil businessman), and at times culturally simplified and potentially insulting, in Violet’s life in the courtesan house, under the command of Madam and the tutelage of Magic Gourd – a courtesan she once admired in her mother’s house – there is a genuineness in the relationships between all women. Shared shitty experiences of patrons between courtesans, repeated patterns between mothers and daughters: the strength in this book is the honest, rare relationships between the female characters. And this is a strength throughout the whole book.
The storytelling and narration is oddly stilted and formal, but at the same time becomes intimate, drawing you in not through style but through subject matter: wondering what we have physically and emotionally inherited from our mothers;a life filling the gap we may not even know is there; sex: first time, last time, most unusual, most beautiful, most cruel; a life battling against the stereotypes: Chinese, foreign, Eurasian, female, courtesan, heiress.
There are several voices that tell this story, purporting to be Lulu, Violet, Flora and once, even Magic Gourd; but Tan’s writing does not stretch to differentiating the voices. The characters are memorable, and the worlds they inhabit full of colour and context, but the voices given to the women themselves are same same, and I found myself having to stop to remember which women said what, when the voice they said it with was indistinguishable from the other. And this is a real lack, because on reflection, while the plot was salacious and the time full of change and interest, the best thing in this book is the friendships between the women.
After her cruel separation from her mother, a lot of Violet’s drive comes from what she thinks she needs from the men in her life: business, protection, money, love. Constantly seeking a father figure, eventually the ache in her is satisfied by her mother, her daughter, her closest friend.
Stuff like this is normally classified ‘chick lit’, simply because it contains women, with names, who talk to each other about things other than men. I think Amy Tan’s reputation, and the historical setting, saved this book from a classic contemporary pink cover with a high heel on the front, and for that I am glad. While the dramatic elements of this book are designed to drag you in – a separation between mother and daughter, a man betraying, a world under threat – there is a real quality in Tan’s depiction of the womens’ friendships, and the world they live in.
This book got me in and keep me in because the storytelling does it very right: the context is interesting, the plot dramatic, the characters at turns relatable and evocative. It’s a family story, but through the female line, set in a 20th Century China full of diversity and flux, and well worth the indulgence.