Valley of Amazement (Tan)

The Valley of Amazement 
Amy Tan, 2013
608 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780062107329

Shanghai, 1912.
Violet Minturn is the privileged daughter of the American madam of the city's most exclusive courtesan house. But when the Ching dynasty is overturned, Violet is separated from her mother in a cruel act of chicanery and forced to become a "virgin courtesan."

Half-Chinese and half-American, Violet grapples with her place in the worlds of East and West — until she is able to merge her two halves, empowering her to become a shrewd courtesan who excels in the business of seduction and illusion, though she still struggles to understand who she is.

Back in 1897 San Francisco, Violet's mother, Lucia, chooses a disastrous course as a sixteen-year-old, when her infatuation with a Chinese painter compels her to leave her home for Shanghai. Shocked by her lover's adherence to Chinese traditions, she is unable to change him, despite her unending American ingenuity.

Fueled by betrayals, both women refuse to submit to fate and societal expectations, persisting in their quests to recover what was taken from them: respect; a secure future; and, most poignantly, love from their parents, lovers, and children. To reclaim their lives, they take separate journeys — to a backwater hamlet in China, the wealthy environs of the Hudson River Valley, and, ultimately, the unknown areas of their hearts, where they discover what remains after their many failings to love and be loved.

Spanning more than forty years and two continents, The Valley of Amazement transports readers from the collapse of China's last imperial dynasty to the beginning of the Republic and recaptures the lost world of old Shanghai through the inner workings of courtesan houses and the lives of the foreigners living in the International Settlement, both erased by World War II.

A deeply evocative narrative of the profound connections between mothers and daughters, imbued with Tan's characteristic insight and humor, The Valley of Amazement conjures a story of inherited trauma, desire and deception, and the power and obstinacy of love. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Also named—En-Mai Tan
Birth—February 15, 1952
Where—Oakland, California, USA
Education—B.A., M.A., San Jose State University
Currently—San Francisco, California

Amy Tan is a Chinese-American writer, many of whose works explore mother-daughter relationships. Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club (1989) brought her fame and has remained one of her most popular works. It was adapted to film in 1993.

Early yeaars
Tan is the second of three children born to Chinese immigrants John and Daisy Tan. Her father was an electrical engineer and Baptist minister who traveled to the US to escape the Chinese Revolution. Although she was born in Oakland, California, her family moved a number of times throughout her childhood.

When she was fifteen, her father and older brother Peter both died of brain tumors within six months of each other. Tan subsequently moved with her mother and younger brother, John Jr., to Switzerland, where she finished high school at the Institut Monte Rosa in Montreux.

It was during this period that Tan learned about her mother's previous marriage in China, where she had four children (a son who died in toddlerhood and three daughters). Her mother had left her husband and children behind in Shanghai — an incident that became the basis for Tan's first novel, The Joy Luck Club. In 1987, she and her mother traveled to China to meet her three half-sisters for the first time.

Tan enrolled at Linfield College in Oregon, a Baptist college of her mother's choosing. After she dropped out to follow her boyfriend to San Jose City College in California, she and her mother stopped speaking for six months. Tan ended up marrying the young man in 1974 and subsequently earned both her B.A. and M.A. in English and linguistics from San Jose State University. She began her doctoral studies in linguistics at University of California-Santa Cruz and Berkeley, but abandoned them in 1976.

While in school, Tan worked odd jobs — serving as a switchboard operator, carhop, bartender, and pizza maker. Eventually, she started writing freelance for businesses, working on projects for AT&T, IBM, Bank of America, and Pacific Bell, writing under non-Chinese-sounding pseudonyms.

In 1985, she turned to fiction, publishing her first story in 1986 in a small literary journal. It was later reprinted in Seventeen magazine and Grazia. On her return from the China trip with her mmother, where she had met her half-sisters, Tan learned her agent had signed a contract for a book of short stories, only three of which were written. That book eventually became The Joy Luck Club and launchd Tan's literary career.

In addition to her novels (see below), Tan has written two children's books: The Moon Lady (1992) and Sagwa, the Chinese Siamese Cat (1994), which was turned into an animated series airing on PBS. She has also appeared on PBS in a short spot encouraging children to write.

Tan is a member of the Rock Bottom Remainders, a rock band consisting of published writers, including Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening, Dave Barry and Stephen King, among others. In 1994 she co-wrote, with the other band members, Mid-Life Confidential: The Rock Bottom Remainders Tour America With Three Chords and an Attitude.

In 1998, Tan contracted Lyme disease, which went undiagnosed for a few years. As a result, she suffers from epileptic seizures due to brain lesions. Tan co-founded LymeAid 4 Kids, which helps uninsured children pay for treatment, and wrote about her life with Lyme disease in a 2013 op-ed piece in the New York Times.

Tan is still married to the guy she ran off with from Linfield College and married in 1974. He is Louis DeMattei, a lawyer, and the two live in San Francisco.

1989 - The Joy Luck Club
1991 - The Kitchen God's Wife
1995 - The Hundred Secret Senses
2001 - The Bonesetter's Daughter
2003 - The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings (Essays)
2005 - Saving Fish from Drowning
2013 - The Valley of Amazement
2017 - Where the Past Begins: A Writer's Memoir
(Author bio adapted from Wikipedia and the author's website.)

Book Reviews
Written in Tan's characteristically economical and matter-of-fact style, The Valley of Amazement is filled with memorably idiosyncratic chracters. And its array of colorful multilayerd stories is given further depth by Tan's affecting depictions of mothers and daughters ... strong women struggling to survive all that life has to throw at them.
Lesley Downer - New York Times Book Review

The Valley of Amazement is never dull — there’s far too much sex, suffering and intrigue for that — but it’s wearisome. We deserve more enlightenment for surviving this ordeal with Violet. Her travails should deliver us to a place we couldn’t have imagined at the start.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

At times Tan skates perilously close to the thin emotional ice of a Mills & Boon, with the narrative of lost love and lost children, but she is too astute a writer to fall through entirely. She is a brisk storyteller, and despite its flaws, The Valley of Amazement packs in enough drama to keep her readers going to the end.
Isabel Hilton  - Guardian (UK)

In short, it's one Tan thing after another, and therein lies the episodic weakness of this book, which is epic in length but not in shape. After a couple hundred pages, the reader recognizes, with a slow-descending pall, that men will keep behaving badly (or, at best, weakly) and Violet will keep suffering. Not, however, without processing her feelings as efficiently as a guest correspondent for O magazine.
Louis Bayard - Los Angeles Times

The epic story follows three generations of women pulled apart by outside forces.… The choice to cram the truth... into the last 150 pages makes the story unnecessarily confusing. Nonetheless, Tan’s mastery of the lavish world of courtesans and Chinese customs continues to transport.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) This utterly engrossing novel is highly recommended to all readers who appreciate an author’s ability to transport them to a new world they will not forget. As a plus, this reviewer sensed the harbinger of a sequel by the last page.
Library Journal

(Starred review.)  Tan’s prodigious, sumptuously descriptive, historically grounded, sexually candid, and elaborately plotted novel counters violence, exploitation, betrayal, and tragic cultural divides with beauty, wit, and transcendent friendship between women.

Tan's story sometimes suffers from longueurs*, but the occasional breathless, steamy scene evens the score.… A satisfyingly complete, expertly paced yarn.
(*boring parts)
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for The Valley of Amazement ... then take off on your own:

1. "When I was 7, I knew exactly who I was." What does that statement suggest about the young speaker, and what is the irony behind it?

2. How does Amy Tan present Violet's perspective of the surroundings in Hidden Jade Path?

3. Describe Violet's relationship with her mother. What do you think of Lulu Mimi (in the first part of the novel)?

4. Describe Magic Gourd and her role as Violet's mentor. What do we learn through her long disquisition on the ways of the courtesan culture? (One hundred positions? Really?) Did it hold your attention? Does Magic Gourd's monlogue have a familiar ring to it (perhaps you've read Memoirs of a Geisha)?

5. Talk about the path of Violet's life once she is sold to the Hall of Tranquility? In what way does her own life mirror that of her mother?

6. How does the backdrop of China's many cultural and political disasters impinge on the secluded world of the brothels?

7. Many of the characters are in search of what one calls "pure self-being." What does that phrase mean, and how do the various characters each define attempt to locate the ideal for their own lives.

8. Eventually, Tan takes us back to late 19th-century California and to Lulu / Lucia. Does this section of the novel alter your view of her character?

9. What is role of the painting that gives the novel its name — the Valley of Amazement? Like "pure self-being (in Question 7), its message varies for each character—hope or hopelessness, perhaps. For Violet, the painting reminds her "of those illusions that changed as you turned them upside down or sideways."

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

top of page (summary)

Site by BOOM Boom Supercreative

LitLovers © 2018