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.