Book Review: The Valley of Amazement

Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

I’ve been so excited about Amy Tan’s newest novel The Valley of Amazement, that I worried that my expectations were too high. Thankfully, the novel exceeded my expectations. I think it’s one of Tan’s best books. I’ve had my hands on the galley since I briefly “met” Amy Tan during Book Expo America. I finally took it with me on a plane trip a couple of weeks ago. I finished it in less than 24 hours.

Violet, the book’s main character, grew up in a high class courtesan house that is run by her unmarried mother Lulu.  Thanks to Lulu’s American business sense and daring, Hidden Jade Path becomes one of the premiere courtesan houses in Shanghai during the early 1900s. Even at seven years of age, Violet has a strong sense of American entitlement. Her view of the world changes when Violet learns that her father is Chinese. She is biracial, with one foot in each world and never quite accepted in either.

As the political situation worsens in Shanghai, Lulu makes plans for both of them to return to San Francisco. Unfortunately, Lulu has been tricked. Violet never makes it on the ship to the United States. Instead she is sold to a rival courtesan house as half-breed. The rest of the novel spans another generation as Violet accepts her new role in life and becomes one of the best courtesans in Shanghai (with help from an old friend and former courtesan Magic Gourd).

Tan has painstaking done her historical research. I could picture the courtesan house exactly in my mind thanks to the detailed descriptions of the furniture, drapes, everything. There’s just enough details to give me a good sense of the setting without going overboard.

I was absolutely fascinated by what goes into a courtesan’s training. (Read Magic Gourd’s tips in the ebook Rules for Virgins ) Courtesans had to be wooed by their clients with gifts and money before they were invited into their bed. There was a skill in showing enough skin at the right time, in order to secure valuable jewelry and gifts. A courtesan’s career did not last long and these gifts were their retirement.

Tan truly explored how Violet was impacted upon learning that she was biracial. Not just with how Violet identified herself, but how she was treated by those around her. Tan even goes back to when Lulu first meets Violet’s father and how their relationship was perceived by both sides.

I’ve listened and watched several interviews with Amy Tan about The Valley of Amazement. There’s been a lot of coverage about the sex scenes she wrote. Apparently this was the first time she’d ever written one. I don’t know why the media is making such a big deal out of it. It’s not explicit like 50 Shades. The sex scenes are part of the story and helps the reader understand what courtesan life was like. Maybe because Amy Tan wrote them?

I thoroughly enjoyed The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan and think you will too. I have tickets to see her talk about her book in a couple of weeks and I’m just a wee bit excited!

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