Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan,
was named as Amazon's BEST BOOK OF THE
book is available from many book dealers in
the hardcover edition, paperback edition,
or as an audio download from
The Amazon Kindle Edition (e-book) costs $11.93,
hardcover: $17.99, paperback: $13.53, and audio,
Audible Edition (download) for $19.59 or 1 credit.
Other book vendors should have comparable
prices for Amy Tan's new book. 

Book Review by:
Sharon Powers.

     Amy Tan, well-known American author of bestselling novels such as The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God's Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, Saving Fish From Drowning, and The Bonesetter's Daughter, has a new novel to put into contention for success in joining her other wildly popular titles: The Valley of Amazement.  Amy Tan's new book was released on November 5, 2013; it has been chosen by Amazon as the their BEST BOOK OF THE MONTH FOR NOVEMBER 2013.

     Amy Tan, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, received her inspiration for her lauded, The Joy Luck Club, from her mother, Daisy's, life. Tan's mother's first marriage was an unhappy and abusive one. Her mother, Daisy, was forced to leave her children behind as she escaped the marriage. Then, in 1987, Amy and her mother, Daisy, traveled to China to meet the left-behind children, Amy's half-sisters. In her new novel, The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan goes back to her cultural roots and writes about something she knows well, women in the Chinese culture and family that straddles two continents. Again, her inspiration is drawn from family...a photograph of Amy Tan's grandmother was found with her grandmother attired in courtesan clothing.
Amy Tan, in her CBS interview,
explains that a photograph of
her grandmother was found with
her grandmother in "courtesan"
clothing. See the YouTube video,
below, for more information.

      Raised as an American in Shanghai, Violet grew up hating her name because it sounded (in Shanghainese) like "Vyau-la," meaning, "something you wanted to get rid of." Violet's skin was fair, her hair brown, and eyes green. She was educated in the Western manner and her feet were not bound. Violet lived with her American mother, who owned and ran a courtesan house, Hidden Jade Path.

     The Valley of Amazement is primarily the story of three women. Violet, who takes center stage throughout most of the story, but also Violet's mother (Lulu Mimi) and Violet's daughter (Flora). As the story opens we are introduced to seven-year-old Violet being raised in the courtesan house, Hidden Jade Path. In an early turning point in the story, Violet's mother is tricked into thinking that (by now fourteen-year-old) Violet is on board the ship with her as she flees Shanghai; instead, Violet has been kidnapped and sold to a competing courtesan house as a virgin courtesan.
Lulu Mimi loved violets and named her
daughter, Violet. Violet planted the flowers
over the grave of her husband, Edward.
     Through trials and tribulations the women survive. By the time we reach the end of the book, we appreciate the work the women did to achieve a kind of reunion. No. None of the women are the same that they would have been had misfortune not entered their lives. As Golden Dove tells Violet's mother, Lulu Mimi, "The life we receive is not always what we choose" (p. 496).

 When Violet arrives at The House of Tranquility, "Magic Gourd," a courtesan formerly from Hidden Jade Path, who already knows and likes Violet, befriends Violet. Magic Gourd saves as many of Violet's personal possessions as she can from Violet's valise, before the madam has a chance to seize all of the possessions as her right to her newly purchased property...Violet and all she owns.

"The Bund" in Shanghai during the 1890s. The Bund
is one of the locations in the book, The Valley
of Amazement.
     One of the possessions Magic Gourd rescues is a landscape painting by the artist Lu Shiang entitled, The Valley of Amazement.  As Violet looks at the painting, she feels as if she were on "...the edge of a cliff, facing the scene below. The mountain ridges on each side were ragged, and their shadow silhouettes lay on the valley floor. The pendulous clouds were the shade of an old bruise....The painting gave [Violet] a queasy feeling. It was like an omen...[Violet] felt certain now that the painting meant you were walking into the valley, not leaving it. The rain was coming. It was dusk, turning dark, and you would no longer be able to find your way back" [p. 106].

A Chinese courtesan
playing the Qin
(a musical instrument).
     The painting appears at many different times in the story and to each who views it it has its own meaning. To Violet it is one of foreboding dark days ahead, to Violet's mother, Lulu Mimi, "[t]he whole of me was contained in that painting..." [p. 454] "what was in the painting of the green valley: It was love for myself" [p.500]. And, to Flora, the painter "...was a phony artist...'[i]t felt like all the truth [of the painting] got whitewashed with fake happiness...only it was not happy and it was worse than fake. It was dangerous" (p. 572). The painting is a talisman throughout the book as it binds together, as if by silken cords, the lives and the stories of the three women whose lives are revealed by it.

Memoirs of a Geisha
by Arthur Golden,
also a feature film
by the same name.

     It is inevitable that Amy Tan's book will be compared to Arthur Golden's, Memoirs of a Geisha. The similarities are basic: a young girl sold into sexual servitude as a courtesan, training in the arts to please customers, selling of the girl's virginity and her defloration, customers and patrons, changing of the courtesan's name, love and sorrow, the fall from wealth and success and, of course, the onset of hardship.

     Where it differs, it differs greatly. The most obvious difference is that Memoirs of a Geisha is set in Japan, whereas The Valley of Amazement is set, primarily, in China--different cultures. So, what most people think of when they compare the two stories are really the basic similarities of the two overarching plots.

     I think the differences are more important. Memoirs of a Geisha is the story one woman tells (like a "Memoir"); whereas, The Valley of Amazement is far more comprehensive in scope and is a story about the relationships of three women across many years and two countries. Moreover, parts of the book jump back in time providing the back story for Violet's mother when she lived at home with her parents (We learn she used to go by the name, Lucretia, and like Violet, she hated her name and, so, changed it--one of the themes in the book.).

A Chinese man in traditional clothing.
     The one thing that caused a jarring note to the story was the abruptness with which Amy Tan jumped the time into the past. The end of one chapter (chapter 11), Violet, with her companions, Pomelo and Magic Gourd, have fled the city of Moon Pond. Pomelo and Violet flee for their lives, running from their (shared) abusive "husband" with their friend, Magic Gourd. They have traumatically extracted their escape and stand on the top of the mountain looking down at the night lights of the city of Mountain View--they are excited to start their new life, and begin their descent from the mountain toward the city lights, below.

     Abruptly, the next chapter (chapter 12) begins: "I was sixteen when I saw what appeared to be a Chinese emperor standing in our doorway..." (p. 433). The jump is disorienting until you realize that the speaker is Lucia Minturn, Violet's mother at age sixteen, describing the man who will later become Violet's father, Lu Shing. At that time, Lu Shing was a Chinese student of American landscape painting--and the painter of The Valley of Amazement (painting) that appears throughout the book.

     Even with the one jarring note of the abrupt change in the character who is speaking, I actually liked the jump back in time; my sole criticism is that it is just a bit abrupt. Moving back in time in the story line is a great technique to hold back information and promote suspense. When they come, the delayed answers to the reader's Questions about Violet's mother helps us resolve our questions and understanding...even if we do not always approve of her mothering techniques. that you know about the abrupt change from chapter 11 to 12, it shouldn't put you off.

     Please know that this is not a romance book. Nonetheless, since this book deals with the life of courtesans, concubines, the selling of young women into sexual slavery, the selling of virgins' virginity and their defloration, be cautioned that those scenes may affect either young people or sensitive readers. Part of the story also deals with betrayal and hardship and physical abuse of women by husbands. I do, however, think this is a beautiful story of triumph of the spirit for women. I also cheer Violet for her personal growth and the strengthening of her character. All the featured women characters have wonderful attributes you'll admire . . . some attributes, however, you'll just shake your head at.

"Teddy once told me that it's natural that we feel alone, and that's because our hearts are different from others and we don't even know how. When we're in love, as if by magic, our different hearts come together perfectly toward the same desire. Eventually, the differences return, and then comes heartache and mending, and, in between, much loneliness and fear. If love remains despite the pain of those differences, it must be guarded as rare. That's what Teddy said and that's what we had" (Danner speaking to Lucia, Violet's mother, p. 499).
         Although this beautiful quote is about two men, Danner and and his beloved, Teddy, it also reflects the love of many of the women in the book. The relationships between mother and daughter and between friends are especially memorable.


My rating for this book is 4.5 stars out of 5.
Amy Tan.
Amy Tan received her bachelor and
master's degrees from San Jose State
University (SJSU) in English and
Linguistics. She went to the
University of Santa Cruz and
Berkeley to study linguistics. Amy
Tan married tax attorney, 

Louis DeMattei, in 1974. 

Pages: 613
ISBN: 0062107313
Publisher: Ecco (November 5, 2013)
Sold by: HarperCollins Publishers
Language: English
Kindle-Text-to-speech: Enabled
Kindle-X-Ray: Enabled
Kindle-Lending: Not Enabled

     Just in case you haven't figured it out, I really loved Amy Tan's new book. Don't just skim through the book, slow down, enjoy it, let it soak into you, saturating your very cells. You'll come away with an extraordinary and enjoyable experience.

     I hope you have enjoyed exploring this wonderful book with me this week. I encourage you to explore for yourself, The Valley of Amazement, by Amy Tan.

Until next time...
White Rose.
...many happy pages of reading!

_____________________________________ - The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, book cover; - Violets; - The Bund, Shanghai, China; - Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Goldman; - Any Tan; - About the author; - Chinese man in traditional clothing; - YouTube interview with Amy Tan; - Amy Tan's grandmother in courtesan clothing; - 4.5 stars; - White Rose.