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Amy Tan's book inspired by grandmother's hidden past

  • Amy Tan and her new novel, "The Valley of Amazement". (photo by AP Photo/Ecco, Michael Childers)

In Amy Tan's newest novel, she returns to familiar ground: the relationships between mothers and daughters amid moral ambiguity.

But in “The Valley of Amazement,” Tan proves there are plenty of surprises left when the mothers and daughters inhabit the world of courtesans in turn-of-the-century Shanghai. For 600-plus pages, she delves into the secrets of the women who lived on that precarious rung of society, tolerated and even celebrated but not fully accepted.

Tan hasn't written a new novel in eight years but “The Valley of Amazement” was worth the wait. This novel, which explores the divides between East and West, sexual fantasy and sometimes-bitter reality, is a saga that leaves you weary in the end — in a good way. You climb the mountain with the characters, struggle to learn that foreign tongue, feel renewed by love and torn apart by losing someone dear.

The story begins where so many of Tan's books do — including her famous debut novel, “The Joy Luck Club” — with a mother and daughter, Lulu and Violet. Lulu is a white American woman from California who abandoned her life in a moment of passion to follow her Chinese lover to Shanghai, only to realize that she has no place in that world and no ability to return to her own, now that she's pregnant.

Lulu becomes the owner of a top courtesan house, and that's where young Violet learns about the arts of the bedroom — and also that she is half Chinese, a person who fits nowhere. When her mother is tricked into leaving Violet, the girl begins her own voyage of survival, turning to the only life she knows, as a courtesan. Later, when Violet becomes separated from her own child, Flora, she comes to understand her mother's anguish.

The genesis of the book is intriguing on its own. While reading a book about Chinese courtesan culture, Tan came across a photo of 10 women dressed in clothes she recognized as identical to those her grandmother wore in one of the author's favorite photos. The women in the photo, captioned The Ten Beauties of Shanghai, were courtesans. Tan began to wonder what secrets her grandmother might have kept — and a novel was born.

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