The first novel in eight years from Amy Tan, The Valley of Amazement is a return to form for the beloved author of The Joy Luck Club and other bestsellers: a multigenerational saga set in China and the United States and focusing on relationships among women, especially mothers and daughters.
The new book is something of a departure, though, in its main setting: the courtesan houses of Shanghai in the first decades of the 20th century. These were no ordinary brothels. They were luxuriously appointed, staffed by stylish and beautiful girls and young women trained in conversation and entertainment as well as sexual expertise, and ruled by their own strict codes of conduct for customers. The courtesan houses were often the stage for business and social life for powerful men in the booming, cosmopolitan city.
Let's get the obvious joke out of the way: This is no Fifty Shades of Tan. Although there are erotic scenes in the book, in most of it the characters' sex work is just that: work, with the attendant rewards, pitfalls and aggravations of any job. One of the funniest, and wisest, chapters is called "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."
Young Violet is Violet Minturn, whose white American mother, Lulu Minturn, runs one of the city's top courtesan houses, Hidden Jade Path, also known as House of Lulu Mimi. Lulu was raised in San Francisco but as a pregnant 16-year-old followed her Chinese lover, an artist named Lu Shing, to his home in Shanghai. Lu Shing is Violet's father, but he abandoned her and her mother long ago. With few options for supporting herself and a child half a world away from home, Lulu became first a courtesan and then a madam — a very successful one.
As The Valley of Amazement opens, Violet is 7 years old and thinks of herself as "a thoroughly American girl," even though she's bilingual and almost everyone she knows is Chinese. She's privileged, indeed rather spoiled, and mostly doted on by the Cloud Beauties, as her mother's employees are known, for their noms de boudoir: Billowy Cloud, Snowy Cloud, Rosy Cloud. Violet herself, though, is not meant to follow in her mother's footsteps — private tutors are preparing her to pursue an education and a life outside the "flower world."
But with China in turmoil as the Qing dynasty falls in 1912, Violet and her mother are torn apart by one of Lulu's customers, the ironically named Fairweather. He tricks Lulu into boarding a ship to California and abducts Violet, now 14, and sells her to another courtesan house.
The girl is suddenly on the other side of the trade, being schooled as a "virgin courtesan" whose defloration will be sold to the highest bidder after months of training and public appearances at banquets and other events. Her only friend is the acerbic, sensible Magic Gourd, formerly known as Magic Cloud when she worked at Hidden Jade Path, who becomes a substitute for the mother whom Violet now hates for abandoning her.
Tan's longtime readers will guess that it's not that simple. The novel takes us through Violet's career as a courtesan as well as her three marriages — one deliriously happy, one brutally abusive, one comfortable — and her own loss of a beloved daughter. It also tells Lulu's story, both before and after she is separated from Violet.
From those stories emerge many secrets, a common theme in Tan's books as female characters do what they must to survive, and protect those they love, in a world where women have almost no power or autonomy. As glamorous as the courtesan houses might seem, Tan doesn't romanticize prostitution — the women who worked in the houses were usually sold into sexual slavery as children, sometimes as young as 5 or 6, and their careers ended in their early 20s, leaving them with grim options if they didn't find husbands (and sometimes that was a grim option, too).
Tan has said in interviews her inspiration for the book came out of her own family's history. While doing research, she discovered photos from 1910 of a group of women called the Ten Beauties of Shanghai — courtesans who had won a contest. They were dressed exactly like Tan's grandmother was in a photo from the same era. That led Tan to wonder if her grandmother, about whose life in China she knew little, might have worked in the courtesan houses — and if so, why.
The resulting novel combines vivid historical details and epic sweep across several decades and two continents with intimate portraits of flawed but engaging women whose resourcefulness and courage are sometimes astounding. Tan might never know her grandmother's real story, but The Valley of Amazement is a fine tribute to her and to strong women everywhere.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.