Owlcat’s CBR V Review #25: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

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.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #84: Dreams of Joy by Lisa See

After having thrilled to See’s novel “Snowflower and the Secret Fan,” I was rather disappointed by her next novel Shanghai Girls. I felt the story was emotionally shallow and at the same time melodramatic, and while the history of Shanghai is interesting, it is stagnant, told through the eyes of two women who never really break from their spoiled past and grow up and see the world as it has evolved.

Now See has penned a sequel to Shanghai Girls, called Dreams of Joy. It is better than its predecessor but still left me somewhat flat and uninvolved. In Shanghai Girls, well-off sisters Pearl and May barely escape the Communist Revolution in China and flee to the U.S. with little more than Joy, the baby May was pregnant with from a prominent artist back in China. They make a life for themselves in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, but it is not tremendously interesting and they are less than appealing as main characters. At the end of the book, things quickly and painfully conclude with a suicide and 18-year-old Joy’s sense of betrayal by her family. She sneaks into Communist China, now undergoing its 1950s Great Leap Forward, determined to hunt down her artist father and to join the ongoing Maoist revolution.

Dreams of Joy begins where Shanghai Girls leaves off, with Pearl returning to the country she had vowed to turn her back on in pursuit of her willful and idealistic daughter. Pearl becomes a much more interesting character in this sequel, while May remains behind in the US and is viewed primarily through her letters and Pearl’s own reminiscences. Joy meets her handsome, romantic, artist father but is blind to the fact that he is being forced to play out a role in order to survive Mao’s Cultural Revolution. She ends up living in a small village, married to a man who is not what he had seemed, and bearing a child just as the villagers begin to starve to death under Mao’s insane dictums. Pearl ends up in Shanghai, sharing her looted family mansion with former servants and squatters and becoming a garbage collector to survive while waiting for Joy to come to her senses. The spoiled Joy, meanwhile, is rapidly shedding her ideals about Maoist China and is forced to grow up in a hurry to keep herself and her baby alive.

While the picture of Communist China that See paints for us is as brutal as one can imagine, her writing has taken on the quality of what I would call “reverse propaganda,” more intent on painting the horrors of the Great Leap Forward than in giving us a more sensitive and profound portrayal as in “Snowflower.” The ending of Dreams of Joy is a little too sweet, a little too neat, a little too Hollywood-ish. Not bad but not great either.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #63: The Master of Rain by Tom Bradby

This debut novel takes place in Shanghai in the 1920s, where a newly-arrived young British cop hopes to start his life over thanks to the sponsorship of his rich and politically connected uncle. Field is just getting used to the atmosphere in Shanghai–hot, corrupt, sordid, and exotic, drastic contrasts of rich and poor, with deadly but exciting currents running just under the surface—when he is assigned by the political unit to which he is attached to keep tabs on a rival police unit involved in criminal investigation. The heads of both units are vying for the post of police commissioner, and Field is an unwitting pawn in the battle. Money begins to accrue mysteriously in Field’s account, but he is not sure who is trying to buy his loyalty.

When Field gets in the middle of a homicide investigation involving the brutal mutilation/murders of several Russian prostitutes under the thumb of a powerful Chinese criminal warlord named Lu, he finds himself falling for one of Lu’s women, Natasha. Like the other women, Natasha had been the privileged child of wealthy white Russians until they were forced to flee the Bolshevik Revolution, and ended up in Shanghai without wealth or protection. Considered homeless refugees, the Russians slipped to the bottom of the Shanghai social order and their daughters fell under Lu’s control to survive. But someone is killing them and Field is determined to solve the mystery and protect Natasha.

Especially fascinating about this novel are the author’s insights into the role of the British colonial elites in carving out a gilded enclave for themselves in the midst of the hunger and poverty, the crime, drugs, filth and tragedy that is the real Shanghai. Our hero Field is bounced back and forth between the uncle and his ilk at their clubs and dinners, their elegant homes and offices, their gorgeous clothing, their perfumed wives, and the underbelly of society represented by Lu and his army of thousands, who among other things finances orphanages so he can have his pick of discardable playthings and who can order murders with the flick of a finger. It is when the idealistic Field discovers that his uncle’s circles are wholly dependent on Lu for their political power, that he becomes the target of both sides.

The action comes thick and fast, and the identity of the killer eludes Field’s—and thus the reader’s—grasp time and again. Field and Natasha have to decide whether to trust each other, Field has to decide who among his fellow cops he can trust, and who among his uncle’s friends he can rely on. Nothing is as it seems, and the good guys and bad change places several times as the story races to a terrifying conclusion.  An exciting, well-written, well-paced and atmospheric  thriller.