The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
Reviewed by Doc
When I found The Valley of Amazement, I was deeply longing for an illustration of my own inner beauty & determination in camaraderie with other women. I needed to see compassion toward the realistic vulnerability of love and trust. I found that these deep longings were realized and satisfied as I looked through the eyes of the main character, Violet. Kidnapped and sold into the courtesan world, she transformed from a stuck-up American girl temporarily living in Shanghai into a practical young Chinese escort, pleasing the right people in order to survive. In such a drastic transition of identity and culture, Violet’s ever-resourceful human spirit empowered her to reinvent herself.
An intelligent, capable woman, Violet became the perfect vessel for a symbolic discourse on the friction in Chinese/American relations. China and America have always held a very peculiar relationship; the two cultures struggle to recognize the humanity in each other, yet each one’s trademark ingenuity incites equal amounts of awe and suspicion in the other. The forefront of political drama and uncertainty is inclement weather dousing the characters’ perspectives, tossing them about, and sometimes imprisoning them.Tan’s characters were often trapped, both by the roles that women played in society and the limitations that were involved historically. Much of the story was set in the 1920’s and 30’s, when transportation was relatively limited and international relations were clouded and tense. Not even a hundred years ago, mixed race children were sentenced to an unquestionably harsh or short future due to myopic nationalism and ego. Women were pressured to establish themselves in a household to avoid a similar fate for themselves or their children.
Despite her kidnapping and coercion into such a harsh world, the young courtesan’s heart continued to open. Her only problem was love’s tendency to grasp her vulnerable heart and threaten her security. Violet weathered her lovers’ disputes as a universal force; in that time, the consequences of starry-eyed romance shaped women’s lives as dependably the sociopolitical environment. The darkness and ignorance of early 20th century nationalism shook her fragile relationship with success and control. Success, love, loss, recovery, repeat – that was the pattern of Violet’s life.
Courtesan wooing shone differently in The Valley of Amazement than the hot neon sign of a brothel. The entire relationship was a commodity, and clients purchased intimacy on a myriad of levels. In addition to being paid cash, courtesans were showered with expensive gifts of jewelry, clothing, and furniture. Their world was a romp of celebrity and culture, and they often became entwined with their clients by settling into the less-desired status of concubine or ascending to the coveted pedestal of wife.
In such a suffocating yet opulent environment, Violet’s bonds with family and friends were constantly pulled taught. Her parents’ failure to save her haunted her for most of her life. Her best friend was her teacher and attendant, who protected her by maneuvering her through proper tradition and modern etiquette. In love, Violet made stupid choices but also crafted beautiful connections in a touching reflection of reality. In my mind, The Valley of Amazement was written with compassion and a deep longing to establish the identity of women in a growing relationship with freedom. Tan’s every word became a footfall on the journey to the Valley of Amazement, a place suffused with peace, beauty, and freedom that is within all of us.
Amy Tan reads from and signs The Valley of Amazement here at BookPeople on Tuesday, December 17 at 7pm. Books & tickets are available via our website. We’re also taking orders for signed copies. We ship all over the world!