Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Wednesday, October 9, 2013: Maximum Shelf: The Valley of Amazement


Ecco: The Valley of Amazement

Ecco: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

Ecco: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

Ecco: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

The Valley of Amazement

by Amy Tan

"You must learn all the arts of enticement," a veteran courtesan advises Violet Minturn in The Valley of Amazement. Successful courtesans seduce not just with beauty but with words, as Amy Tan does in this beguiling, gorgeously written novel, her first in eight years. An adventure-filled story of family and friendship, fate and forgiveness, decisions and consequences, The Valley of Amazement spans four decades and takes readers from the inner chambers of a Shanghai courtesan house and the remote mountains of China to San Francisco and New York's Hudson Valley. At the novel's heart is a cast of female characters fiercely, bravely making their way in a world where they're often at the mercy of men.

The daughter of the only white woman to own a first-class courtesan house in early 20th-century Shanghai, Violet--who inherited her mother Lulu's brown hair and green eyes--has grown up believing her parents were both American and that her father is deceased. "When I was seven, I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl in race, manners, and speech," she declares in the novel's opening line. When a courtesan spitefully reveals the truth about her lineage, Violet is shocked and dismayed to learn she is half-Chinese, a revelation that leaves her suspended between two cultures. As she struggles with her dual identity, she begins to doubt her mother, questioning why Lulu would have hidden the truth if she weren't ashamed of her daughter's Chinese blood and wondering what else she is hiding.

Like Tan has done so compellingly in previous works, including her debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, she treads into the always intriguing territory of mother-daughter ties. Despite the misunderstandings and cultural divide that cloud Violet's relationship with Lulu, she discovers it's a bond that is inescapable even after their paths diverge.

Lulu has a say early in the story, shedding light on her unusual place in Shanghai society. She "broke taboo rather extravagantly" by opening a courtesan house, Hidden Jade Path, that caters to both Chinese and Western clientele, many of whom are wealthy players in foreign trade. In addition to providing pleasures of the flesh to patrons, she is sought after for the connections she brokers among businessmen. Readers don't hear directly from Lulu again for more than a decade, as the story follows Violet on a harrowing, heartrending journey. Through the cruel deception of one of Lulu's former lovers, Lulu is sent sailing for San Francisco solo while teenaged Violet is sold to a Shanghai courtesan house. Told by a trusted source that her daughter is dead, Lulu never returns to search for her.

Held against her will, Violet is forced into her mother's former trade and groomed to be a courtesan. Scared, angry and helpless, she finds an unexpected ally in Magic Gourd, an older woman who used to work at Hidden Jade Path and who becomes her mentor and close friend. Out of necessity Violet transforms from a petulant adolescent into a highly popular courtesan and savvy businesswoman.

When Violet later falls in love with Edward, the married American heir to an international shipping conglomerate, and becomes pregnant, she leaves the courtesan life for domesticity. Her bliss is short-lived, and the family she has found shatters, when she loses Edward to illness and her child to circumstance. Much like her mother years earlier, she makes an error in judgment that leads to her three-year-old daughter, Flora, being spirited away. Seeking to support herself, Violet returns to her previous profession. But age is a courtesan's dreaded enemy, and when a lover proposes, she agrees to marry him, grasping at what she sees as a last chance for respectability and a stable future. Instead she finds herself in an arduous situation during which she makes a vow to herself: if she makes it out alive, she will find Flora and get her back.

Both Violet and Lulu engender admiration for their gutsy determination, strength in challenging circumstances and ability to reinvent themselves, while other times they infuriate with reckless behavior and misguided choices. Tan takes her time reuniting the two women, who resume their relationship through correspondence after Violet--knowing what it's like to lose a daughter--softens her long-held resentment toward her mother for abandoning her, letting her know she is alive and asking for her help locating Flora.

Tan's fans will likely find The Valley of Amazement well worth the wait. A feast of a novel at 600 pages, it rarely loses its grip on the reader. Being immersed in the vividly told tale is a deeply felt experience--laughing at a little girl's antics, heart pounding as a mother flees with her child in her arms, flinching as a fist delivers a blow. Tan deftly draws the reader along as she explores the nature of identity, the joys and pitfalls of love, the ripple effects of the choices we make and the role of fate in our lives.

"I'm not saying fate happens without blame. But when fate turns out well, everyone should forget the bad road that got us here," a character advises in The Valley of Amazement. Years of complicated circumstances can't be undone, though, and Violet ultimately comes to a crossroads, faced with deciding whether her future lies in China or America--and with whom. Like her life, this story is bittersweet. --Shannon McKenna Schmidt

Ecco, $29.99, hardcover, 9780062107312

Ecco: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan


Amy Tan: Gifts from Muses

  Photo: Rick Smolan/Against All Odds Productions

Amy Tan is the author of numerous books, including the novels The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God's Wife; the memoir The Opposite of Fate: Memories of a Writing Life; and two children's books, The Moon Lady and Sagwa, which was adapted into a PBS Kids production. Tan was also a co-producer and co-screenwriter of the film version of The Joy Luck Club. Her essays and stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, and her work has been translated into 35 languages. She lives with her husband in San Francisco and New York.

The Valley of Amazement is your first novel in eight years and is causing quite a stir in the publishing world and among readers. What is it like to be back in the literary fiction spotlight?

It's a relief to finally have a novel out--one that others like--in part to prove to myself I had not lost my writing brain. It's also exciting to see the early reviews and responses. And it's frightening to be out there, vulnerable to opinion--thousands upon thousands through social media that has mushroomed as a force of influence. I try to remind myself of what my mother said in regard to anything I did, from fashion to how I think about myself: Don't follow what other people think. Think for yourself. I certainly don't see my book as perfect. But I remind myself of all the reasons I wrote the book and what cannot ever be changed by either criticism or praise.

The Valley of Amazement was partly inspired by the knowledge that your grandmother may have been a courtesan. How did you go from making that discovery to deciding to write a novel set in the world of Shanghai courtesan houses?

I've long believed that who I am has been influenced to some degree by my mother. In turn, she was influenced by her mother, and certain emotional, psychological and habitual patterns of my grandmother have also been passed to me. Curiosity makes me want to know more--not only what might be similar but what might have been deliberately altered. I imagined the circumstances that might have led to my grandmother becoming a courtesan. Young girls did not go into that profession as a career choice. I imagined what my grandmother would have done to not simply survive but to succeed. And I searched for those traits that were strong in my mother and in me, one of them being an intolerance of betrayal, condescension and meanness to others. I have a bad trait, one I used to hate in my mother but realize is firmly entrenched in me, and that is difficulty in forgiving someone I trusted who has betrayed me. However, I am not limited by my mother's and grandmother's pasts. For one thing, my circumstances differ vastly. I can choose my life.

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass features in Violet's romance with Edward. What meaning does Whitman's work have for you personally?

I have a few books of poetry in a teetering stack of books by my night table. Sometimes a poem suits the mood of the night. And so one night I ran across a Whitman poem that perfectly encapsulated who Edward and Violet are to each other. It begins: "Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you." The poem was an epiphany during the writing of that particular chapter. It reflected something I have always felt: the nature of dependency, loneliness and independence needed to move forward. I always take helpful coincidences as gifts from my muses--my grandmother and my mother. During this period, another poem came along, "Quicksand Years," that captured what I have felt about my own life at times, and the expression of that became an autobiographical intersection with the character.

Courtesans 1910, winners of "The Ten Beauties of Shanghai"

Tell us about the back story behind the intriguing title, The Valley of Amazement, and how it relates to the novel?

About seven years ago, I was in Berlin briefly and had a chance to go to several museums, one of which was the Alte Nationalgalerie. They have an impressive collection of German painters, whose work bears some similarity to the paintings of artists who were part of the Hudson River Valley School. I saw one particularly dramatic painting: a fantastical landscape with a man standing over a ledge surveying a valley at either sunset or sunrise and either before a storm or after it. That ambiguity led to discomfort.

The title was The Valley of Amazement. The only reference I found to the title was in a Persian poem, "The Colloquy of Birds." I read two interpretations: that the Valley of Amazement is the sixth of seven valleys, and the one in which you become enlightened and are thus ready to enter the Valley of Death. In the other interpretation, the Valley of Amazement is where you lose all sense of yourself and are reduced to nothing. You are then ready to enter the Valley of Annihilation. I regret I did not write down the name of the artist. I did not yet know that I would use the title of the painting as the title of my book. Despite much searching, I have not located that exact painting. But given its fantastical style and reference to classical texts, I believe the artist was Carl Blechen.

I needed the character to have some familiarity with the poem, and it was not unlikely that an educated young man would have encountered it in China. The Chinese had a great fondness for Persian culture and translated numerous writings. "The Colloquy of Birds" is a masterpiece and would conceivably have been among them. To further the connection with the German painting, I included several characters who had some affinity with the Hudson River Valley School of painters. Their lives lie within valleys of illusion and ambiguity as well.

The author's grandmother, 1910

The Valley of Amazement is rich with historical detail and a vivid sense of place. What research did you do for the novel? What can you tell us about your visit to the remote village in China that served as the model for Moon Pond, where Violet spends a harrowing several months?

I visited a Dong minority village in the mountains of Guizhou, China's most remote and poorest province and became entranced with its singing culture and the village's beauty. I decided to write a piece on it for National Geographic. Shortly after, a fifth of the village burned down and a man was banished to a cowshed. There went my story--until I realized that this tragic event was the story. My novel started off with this setting and tragedy in mind, but when I discovered the photographs of my grandmother suggesting she might have been a courtesan, I changed the novel drastically. The village became an illusion of peace and beauty, and quite unlike the place that inspired it.

Moon Pond village was also influenced by my stay in a very small village in Anhui province, where I went with my sister, husband and friend Lisa See. We stayed in a 400-year-old mansion that had belonged to a merchant and discovered its fascinating features and its discomforts. The furniture was typical of the period, the rooms were tiny, and there was no glass on the windows. I suffered for my art!

Among the many other sources for my research, I visited a museum with an exhibit on Shanghai. It included illustrations of courtesans who helped influence the introduction of Western culture, including fashion, décor, food and pastimes. I also accumulated numerous academic books related specifically to courtesan culture in Shanghai during the 19th and early 20th century--and it was specific to Shanghai, since the customs were different in, say, Suzhou or Guangzhou. I also had extensive e-mail exchanges with the authors of three of those books, including one whose research focused on courtesan photography.

To further study the details of photographs, I visited the archives of the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., which is arguably the greatest repository of the image in the U.S. The staff there gave me a special screening of a rare and recently restored Chinese movie from the early 1900s about a country girl tricked into becoming a Shanghai prostitute. I read two novels about courtesans and their clients, including Han Bangqing's semi-autobiographical novel Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai, translated by the estimable writer Eileen Chang (aka Zhang Ailing), as well as by Eva Hung after Chang died before completing the work. For the novel, I used the convention in Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai of rendering names into a Western counterpart based on meaning--hence, names such as Magic Cloud, Perpetual and Loyalty. I also viewed the film adaptation of Han Banqing's novel, renamed Flowers of Shanghai.

Ironically, I found little documentation on sexual practices in courtesan houses, let alone techniques. The researchers said that they uncovered little as well. Thus, the tricks of the trade will remain their trade secrets. However, I did find source materials on aphrodisiacs and sexual positions used by men with their wives and concubines. And I read erotic novels, including Jin Ping Mei ("The Plum in the Golden Vase"), which included quite a bit of trickery and sadism. Li Shang-yin, the Tang Dynasty poet, also provided instructions on correct behavior of men in a courtesan house; for example, to not brag about one's penis size or urinate in front of a courtesan. In addition, I found old maps of Shanghai and traced the locations of the courtesan houses in the former International Settlement.

There was much more research. But that should give you an idea of what went into writing this novel!

What would you like people who haven't yet read The Valley of Amazement to know about the novel?

The time period and its particular social structure, political upheavals and global disasters were significant in my family. My grandfather, for example, was among the young men who participated in the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. He died of Spanish Influenza in 1919. My grandmother later became the fourth wife (concubine) of a wealthy man and, within a year, she killed herself. My mother felt abandoned because of her mother's suicide. And years later, for complicated reasons, my mother left her three daughters behind in Shanghai when she immigrated to the U.S. and married my father. Those daughters suffered from abandonment, and that is a theme in the novel. I am also intrigued whenever I see Chinese people with green eyes. Two nephews have them. Evidently there was at least one person among our ancestors who was not purely Chinese. I am still searching for who that was and where he or she might have come from. -- Shannon McKenna Schmidt


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