Yesterday, February 19, was Amy Tan’s 64th birthday. I had intended to post a review of one of her novels then, but I felt I had to write about the passing of Harper Lee. Tan is probably best known for The Joy Luck Club, her first novel, which I actually taught a number of times when I was teaching. I’m posting my review of her latest novel, The Valley of Amazement, which was published in 2013.
Having read Amy Tan’s other novels, I looked forward to reading her most recent one. Unfortunately, my expectations were dashed; the book was a disappointment.
Set primarily in the first quarter of the twentieth century in Shanghai, the majority of the novel focuses on Violet Minturn, the daughter of Lucia, an American woman who manages a first-class courtesan house in the city, and an absent Chinese father. When Violet is fourteen, her mother leaves for San Francisco but, because of a man’s devious machinations, Violet is separated from her mother and forced to remain in Shanghai where she is trained as a courtesan. 337 pages are then devoted to 13 years of Violet’s life, years during which she searches desperately for love. Via a 96-page flashback, we are given the story of Lucia’s life which, not surprisingly in an Amy Tan novel, has many parallels with Violet’s.
The first 90+ pages, detailing Violet’s life with her mother, are interesting. Violet learns some family secrets and has to deal with accepting her bi-racial background: “I feared that over time, I would no longer be treated like an American, but as no better than other Chinese girls. . . . I was a half-breed. . . . I feared the stranger-father within my blood. Would his character also emerge and make me even more Chinese? And if that came to pass, where would I belong? What would I be allowed to do? Would anyone love a half-hated girl?” (46 – 47).
The longest section describing Violet’s life from 1912 to 1925 is tiresome. Initially there is little tension. Violet does have to adapt to life as a courtesan, but it is a life of which she had a very good understanding. One chapter is entitled “Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir” “wherein Magic Gourd advises young Violet on how to become a popular courtesan while avoiding cheapskates, false love, and suicide” (139). It is obvious Tan did considerable research, but the 35-page chapter reads like a personal essay. What then follows is Violet’s life as a courtesan and her search for true love in a life devoted to the illusion of romance. Her search is not easy. Virtually all the men behave badly and Violet is left to suffer, albeit with Magic Gourd, her surrogate mother, always by her side. The problem is that the plot becomes predictable: Violet is warned not to do something, but she does it nonetheless and tragedy follows. Not learning from her mistakes, she makes the same poor choices over and over. Tragedy follows tragedy but it becomes difficult to have much sympathy for her since she never seems to mature.
When Lucia’s life is finally detailed, the reader is served a virtual repetition of Violet’s. A rebellious, self-assured girl feels unloved and so makes poor choices and suffers accordingly. The number of parallels between their lives is just too many: both choose men very unwisely and suffer devastating loss; both possess traits of pride and selfishness and the same harsh judgmental attitude towards parents. At one point, Magic Gourd tells Violet, “You are like your mother in so many ways. You often see too much, too clearly, and sometimes you see more than what is there. But sometimes you see far less. You are never satisfied with the amount or kind of love you have” (131). This type of direct characterization just repeats what has already become obvious. Furthermore, there are even parallels between the characters that people their lives. For example, Violet has her ever faithful companion, Magic Gourd, while Lucia has Golden Dove. Lu Shing moves in and out of Lucia’s life but affects it profoundly, and Loyalty Fang performs the same role in Violet’s. Both stories possess shams; the artist in one copies the works of famous artists and the poet in the other copies the poems of ancestors. These numerous echoes suggest a great deal of contrivance.
Another problem is that characters are not likeable. Violet can best be described as bland and naïve, and it is impossible not to become frustrated with her inability or unwillingness to learn from her experiences. Lucia is the same. There is also the difficulty with believability. Would a woman who has lost one child risk the possibility of losing a second child? Would a woman whose livelihood depends on being able to accurately gauge the trustworthiness of men be so blind to the true qualities of some men? Would a woman who has suffered what can only be called as a life-destroying loss show such little distress and give only rare thought to what she has lost? Sometimes there are contradictions. One minute Violet says, “It was strange how quickly it happened. . . . I felt free. That’s when I knew I could end our relationship for good. . . . I simply didn’t love him anymore” and then she says, “I stopped breaking up with him. . . . we always conceded that we loved each other. . . . We admitted it” (550 – 551). This is her behaviour towards the end of the book and this change occurs in the course of one page!
Stylistically, there are flaws. The book is much longer than it need be; it could use a judicious editing. The detailed descriptions of clothing and furniture are really not necessary. There is also unnecessary repetition: Lucia tries opium for the first time (489) and then she makes statements like, “This possibility was my opium” (496) and “Those words were opium to my soul” (510). Even the symbolism lacks depth: the use of the painting entitled The Valley of Amazement as a symbol for a life “that did not exist” (521) because it shows a truth “whitewashed with fake happiness” (573) is anything but subtle.
This novel revisits themes that Tan has explored in previous novels: identity and mother/daughter relationships. The elements of family secrets, misunderstandings, and yearning for a mother’s love have appeared in other of her books, so one will not discover much new in this one.
To my dismay, I found Tan’s latest novel a wearying read. I was anxious for it to end. Like Lucia and Violet, it begins with self-assurance but, like them, it goes on and on without new insight. Sadly, I was left with the feeling that Tan has become like Perpetual and Lu Shing; the men copy the poems and paintings of others, and she is imitating her previous work.