The Valley of Amazement

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

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This book is Amy Tan being Amy Tan, tackling her pet subject: multiple generations of women traveling between America and China, having complex relationships, being exploited by men and bureaucracy and in-laws, and occasionally fighting back. I don’t say that in a disparaging way: she writes what she knows and is good at it. This book is different from previous books of Tan’s I’ve read in that it’s sexier. The main characters are courtesans, or very high-class prostitutes, in Shanghai circa 1910-1925. In addition to the deceptions and seductions of suitors, the drama here comes from a mother and her daughter both losing children to hostile in-laws from another culture, thanks to false or missing documentation. (Now that I’m a mom, reading about a parent losing all contact with a young child is even more heartrending to me than ever.) It’s a long book, offering the perspectives of the American mother, her half-Chinese daughter, and the daughter’s attendant.

Though she relies heavily on coincidence and other slightly unrealistic plot devices, Tan also interweaves historical events like the flu epidemic of 1918 into the narrative. The characters’ relationships and opportunities are greatly influenced by the qeopolitical climate and the relations between China and the US. This is a story that could only have taken place in a particular moment in history, when China was in the process of opening to the West, but still very tradition-bound, when customs like courtesan houses coexisted with typewriters and telegraphs, after the Open Door Notes, but before the invasion by Japan and the Cultural Revolution. Most action takes place in the International Settlement in Shanghai, a cosmopolitan place where foreigners were safe and respected. It’s interesting to learn this history from a perspective that we don’t often see as Americans.

A while ago I reviewed Rules for Virgins, not knowing that it was going to be part of  a longer novel. Though it stands up well on its own, that chapter also fits well in this book. Magic Gourd, its narrator, only narrates this one chapter of The Valley of Amazement, but she’s an important character, and a funny one.

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