Rating: 3.5 /5
Violet’s mother, Lucia is the owner of a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai, but with the political upheaval, and a chance at reuniting with her long-lost son, Lucia prepares to leave with Violet to begin life anew in San Francisco. Instead, though, Violet is kidnapped and sold as a virgin courtesan. While her mother is American, she has never met her father, but recently discovered she is half Chinese, and her exotic looks are an advantage, making her one of the most sought-after courtesans. Struggling with her identity, and with her mother across the Pacific Ocean thinking she is dead, Violet must make her own way in the world, and discover who she really is. The Valley of Amazement is the story of Violet, her tragedies and poor decisions, and also the story of Lucia, of how she ended up in Shanghai, and her chance at redemption, which caused her to abandon her only daughter.
Amy Tan is pretty much unparalleled in navigating the complex relationship between mother and daughter. Like her previous novels, The Valley of Amazement deals with loss, fate, identity, and familial duty. There is a particular place in my heart for novels set in a time when women had very few options outside of spousal and familial duties. It didn’t matter if a woman was smart or showed aptitude, acumen, or potential, since they were merely expected to procreate, and, in Asian societies, give birth to a male heir. With such limited options, it is difficult for women to be independent, to be confident and have opinions and beliefs. Bearing that in mind, although I do think both Lucia and Violet made many terrible mistakes, it is almost forgivable, given the lack of choices. I say ‘almost’ because both females made extremely poor decisions, given their environment.
I enjoyed The Valley of Amazement as a novel, but refrained from giving it 5 stars because it is hard to completely fall in love with a book and give it a high recommendation when the protagonist is not likable. I applaud Violet for being tenacious and resourceful at times, but she was a brat for the majority of the story. Only when she was put in the same position as her mother, did she seem to soften and learn empathy. There were a few gaps that made this story and/or the characters a tad bit unrealistic. For one, Lucia was smart and resourceful, yet when Violet became a teenager, there seemed to be no thought as to Violet’s future. I felt that up until the time Lucia left to go to San Francisco, the reader didn’t know what her expectations of her daughter were: if she didn’t want Violet to end up at a courtesan house, she should have had a plan for Violet. Another aspect that bothered me was the fact that at certain points, Violet passed as completely Asian, while at others, she passed as purely Caucasian. It can be one way or another, but not both.
In the end: The Valley of Amazement is a long book. Not to say it wasn’t enjoyable, but I think it could have gotten its point across with fewer pages. It is a good story, but throughout, I couldn’t help but compare it to Memoirs of a Geisha.