I waited a very long time for this newest novel by Amy Tan. I have never been disappointed in her books before but I found myself dissatisfied with The Valley of Amazement, despite her very well developed characters and the various story lines. The latter is part of the reason for this disappointment, as the novel is about three generations of Chinese-American women and their relationships; like most of Tan’s books, the focus is on the mother-child relationship and the secrets each possess.
The first half of the book centers around the main character, Violet, who is the daughter of turn-of-the-century (early 1900s) Shanghai’s most well-known and respected courtesan. We meet her as a very young child who is intrigued by the men who come to her mother’s establishment but who begins to suspect, and she becomes aware through some of her mother’s elite customers that she may not be completely American, although her mother has always told her she was. After the visit of a Chinese artist, Violet begins to suspect he is her father and begins to recognize Chinese characteristics in herself. She has always suspected that her mother doesn’t really love her and to her, this is verified when her mother learns her son, who was taken from her many years prior, is alive in San Francisco, and she immediately plans to travel there, supposedly with Violet, to find him. An unscrupulous friend of her mother’s manages to separate the two the day of the passage and her mother sails without her. Violet is then kidnapped by agents of this man and sold to another courtesan establishment to undergo training as a virgin courtesan.
Like her mother before her, after some difficulty adjusting to this life and believing her mother is never going to return to rescue her, she becomes a well-known courtesan. In the meantime, she develops a loving relationship with an American man, and they “marry” (though he is married to someone in the States) and have a daughter, Flora. When her husband dies from the Spanish flu, and her husband’s real wife arrives, she is suddenly homeless and childless as they snatch away her daughter to be raised in a civil society back in New York. From this point on, the book becomes dark with the terrors of being taken advantage of by a supposed poet, who takes her as his Second Wife and brings her to the village where his family lives. Her life becomes one of desperation and sadness as all she thinks about is escaping and finding Flora.
While she is in this village, we begin getting bits and pieces of her mother’s story, how she was living in San Francisco prior to the turn of the century and had met a Chinese artist and seduced him. She later followed him back to Shanghai but he was unable to break the Chinese customs and she was abandoned by him and did not prevent his parents from stealing their son from her. It’s this son she longs for that makes Violet think she doesn’t love her enough, though at the time neither knew about the son’s life in San Francisco.
Eventually, when Violet and her mother reconcile and her mother’s story is told, we learn about Flora’s life through Violet’s mother, who agrees to go to New York and observe to see if she is happy and healthy. Three lives torn asunder by young peoples’ choices and family decisions based on culture and custom. We learn less about Flora, except that she is very smart, but a sad and unhappy child who was never loved in a conventional way that a parent should love. She didn’t know the circumstances of her being in New York with her father’s family.
Tan is a fine writer and her characters are very well developed. The culture clashes and descriptions of Shanghai and the village were interesting. However, I felt like this book, even though the abandonment and secrets and mother themes tied it together, wasn’t wrapped well in that thread. Flora’s situation was just one too many pieces to tie into it and I almost felt she was more of an afterthought, like Tan had decided last minute, we really need to have Violet lose yet one more person so she can share in her mother’s experience. It wasn’t totally necessary. It did have the saving grace of making all of Violet’s suffering tenable and gave a nice Hollywood ending to the story in one respect, but it just made the story too long for me and less believable.
The valley in the title is the painting that Violet’s mother had with her that had been painted by her Chinese husband and its presence in the book is a tangible object that connects all of the main characters. I found it a little distracting, except when it symbolized her father’s mediocrity. I’ve seen paintings like that!
I am sorry I cannot recommend the book and others may enjoy it far more than I did. I would be curious to see others’ reactions to it. I guess what I felt was that Amy Tan was relying on her reputation and hadn’t really been able to accomplish what she might have set out to do.