Tag Archives: China

NEW FICTION: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

5 Nov

I’m back! I’m blogging!! I know, I can hardly believe it myself. Sorry for the radio silence, I had a summer of weddings and hen dos and lovely holidays and actually went through a bit of a dry book phase. But I’m back in the game now and very keen to let you know about my last few reads. Thanks for sticking with me!

So first up this November, The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan. Ignorance confession time: before this book landed in my lap, I had never heard of American author Tan. Nor did I know that her bestseller The Joy Luck Club had been translated into 35 languages and whipped up into an Oliver Stone film. What I did know, however, was that I’m not typically a fan of sweeping historical fiction (I know, I’m a heathen) and that the blurb sounded exhausting (‘Violet’s need to understand her past’…’quest to uncover the truth’… ‘spanning fifty years’… GOD ALMIGHTY SOMEONE BRING ME A RED BULL I’M IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL).

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

So it was with a slightly begrudging heart that I turned page 1 of 589 and kicked off proceedings. Luckily, the well paced opening chapter threw me instantly into an intriguing world I knew nothing about. We’re catapulted into Shanghai in the early 20th century, as young Violet Minturn is growing up in one of the city’s finest and most famous courtesan houses. Her American mother Lulu (or Lucia or Lucretia, depending on who you are and where we are in the story) is a formidable Mistress of the House, brokering business deals between wealthy clients and encouraging them to strike up relationships with her Cloud Beauties, the striking and talented courtesans that live in-house.

But it’s a volatile time in China – the Emperor is kicked out and the city becomes a dangerous place for foreigners. Amidst the madness, Violet’s mum is plagued by her own secrets (the publicists weren’t lying about that ‘quest for truth’ stuff) and falls prey to some serious trickery. Suddenly Violet is alone in Shanghai and forced to become a virgin courtesan.

What comes next is, unsurprisingly, a heck of a lot of sex. There’s a whole chapter stuffed (ahem) with virgin courtesan tips, fabulously entitled “Etiquette For Beauties of the Boudoir”, as told to Violet by former Top Ten Beauty of Shanghai, Magic Gourd. There follows some advice for your grand deflowering (“gasp with pleasure, not fright”), a list of kinky client quirks (stay tuned for some cross-dressing Night Scholar scenarios) and top tips for “preparing the pudenda” (nuff said surely?). I was reading solo at Pret once and had to shift the book so my nosey neighbour didn’t think I was reading a porno. Possibly a slight exaggeration.

That said, there’s so much more to being a courtesan than using blustery days as a chance to flash your pants (an actual tip). Visitors couldn’t simply pay to have their way, there’s a whole etiquette of courting and gift-giving that should go on for months before any in-and-outing occurs. I found it fascinating how men would be prepared to woo in an almost traditional sense, despite still having their wives – yup, sometimes plural – back home.

Intimate Confessions of a Courtesan

Still from 1972 film Intimate Confessions of a Courtesan,

Tan has said she ummed and ahhed a lot about how to best write her sex scenes (so many jokes, so little time). But sex aside, really the crux of the story is a big ol’ quest for identity and love. Violet struggles with her dual-nationality (we discover her Dad is Chinese) and the betrayal of her mother throughout the story, but it’s not until about we’re well over half-way through the novel that we start to hear Lulu’s side of the story. <SLIGHT SPOILER ALERT> A headstrong teenager who felt unloved by her parents, Lulu instigates an affair with an exotic Chinese friend of the family. She ends up pregnant with his child, and impulsively decides to follow him back to Shanghai. When she too finds herself abandoned, we realise just how many parallels lie between her story and Violet’s. Will they ever find each other? And will Violet ever be able to forgive her mother for an act of stupidity that changed the course of her daughter’s life? When Violet’s own daughter is taken away from her we get a strange feeling of deja vu that will echo through the remainder of the story.

Modern dress made popular by high-class courtesans in 1920s Shanghai. Image from OrchidRow.com, Source: Huatongoversea.com

Modern dress made popular by high-class courtesans in 1920s Shanghai. Image from OrchidRow.com, Source: Huatongoversea.com

I liked this book more than I thought I would. I did a fair bit of LOLing (Magic Gourd is classic) and cried a couple of times. There are some great colourful characters, plenty of adventure, and it provides a really interesting look at a time and world I knew nothing about. But something stops me shouting about it, and I’m not entirely sure I can put my figure on what that is. It may well be that I was comparing it to another book I had just read, which I LOVED and will tell you all about soon.

I guess I’d say that if epic tales are usually your thing / you like a good emotional read / you’re not a sexy-stuff prude, then this is well worth a read.

Have you read any Amy Tan? Do you think The Valley of Amazement sounds up your street? I’d love to hear from you.