Mother-daughter relationships are Amy Tan’s bread and butter. Since The Joy Luck Club (her first and most famous novel), Tan has explored the generational, cultural, and emotional tensions between family members in sweeping books that drop in on the history of United States as well as that of China. Her latest, The Valley Of Amazement, is no different, serving up a story epic in scope and historically rich, detailing the life of Shanghai courtesans in the early 20th century. But such a strong setting can’t make up for Tan’s failures as a prose stylist and plotter.
Born in Shanghai in 1898, Violet Minturn grows up in a courtesan house owned and operated by her mother, Lucia, an American ex-pat. After Lucia’s former lover kidnaps Violet and sells her to a rival house, the young girl learns the ins and out of high-class prostitution as the day of her “deflowerment” approaches. As it follows Violet’s career as a courtesan and beyond, The Valley Of Amazement cuts a path through China’s vibrant, chaotic history. Forced to grow up the hard way, Violet learns much more than the art of seduction.
If only the novel lived up to the world that it inhabits. Instead The Valley Of Amazement is a turgid mess, without enough of a plot to create narrative tension, nor good-enough prose to make the characters interesting on their own.
The biggest problem is Violet, whose role of narrator for almost the entire book makes for a monotonous read. The world of courtesans and their high-class patrons is one of secrets, lies, and performance, but Violet has no spark as a storyteller, and she is so in tune with her own emotions any chance for subtlety or unreliability is lost. She doesn’t need to act like Nick Carraway or Humbert Humbert to be a successful narrator, but Tan never gives the reader the chance to question Violet’s motives or self-ascriptions. It renders her flat when she’s supposed to be intriguing.
Even flatter is the way Violet describes the world. There are a myriad of sex scenes that range from sensual to repeated instances of rape (be forewarned, The Valley Of Amazement contains a lot of rape), but none ever really achieve their purpose viscerally. The detailed acts of lovemaking are accompanied by incredibly clumsy turns of phrase (“easily supplemented by fellatio” is a terrible way to end a sentence), while Violet depicts her rapes as if she is bored instead of traumatized. Domestic abuse is a horrific ordeal, but The Valley Of Amazement is more interested in passing over it than delving into its repercussions.
This lack of depth lurks throughout the book, even in the character distinctions. Late in the narrative, the story shifts to Lucia’s perspective, but stylistically the two women are identical. While in real-life mother-daughter similarities in speech are common, Tan fails to realize that characters in a novel shouldn’t have the same voice. It makes Lucia and Violet blend together, and sinks the book when a new narrator would be a shot in the arm.
When Tan does go in for specificities, The Valley Of Amazement shakes off its torpor and becomes an interesting primer on life as a courtesan in a rapidly changing world. An early chapter outlining the dos and don’ts of the profession is the most engaging and informative part of the novel. If Tan had focused more narrowly on the courtesan house, The Valley Of Amazement, wouldn’t have become the slog it is.