The Valley of Amazement
Spanning fifty years and two continents, The Valley of Amazement is a tale of three women, connected by personal rebellion, betrayal, and a mysterious painting called "The Valley of Amazement." As with all of Tan's novels, we are swept into the pivotal moments of Shanghai's history and the emotional turmoil of mothers and daughters, heritage and individuality, race and culture, and the damaging residue of secrets that lead to misunderstanding upon misunderstanding, from one generation to the next. Lulu, Violet, and Flora, each of a different racial mix and status, must question what is fated from birth, where they belong, and what they can still change.
The story opens in 1905, in a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai, Hidden Jade Path, run by Lulu Minturn, an American woman with Yankee ingenuity and an unknown past. Her daughter, Violet, is unaware of the identity of her father, until she is left behind in Shanghai during the exodus of Americans when the Qing Dynasty falls. Sold into a courtesan house of low repute, fourteen-year-old Violet is groomed as the "virgin courtesan," a fate she resists, until she meets an older courtesan, Magic Gourd, who counsels her on the stupidity of clinging to American pride. She teaches her errant student how to survive and secure her future with business cunning and a practical assortment of tricks of the trade. In the world of flowers, Violet matches illusions to each man's romantic sense of himself, while avoiding the greatest peril a courtesan faces: believing that the illusion of love she has created is real.
For the next two decades, Violet takes us on a careening journey steered by self-will, reckless desires, and clear-eyed resolve. That pursuit takes us into the boudoirs of courtesan houses and the homes of Western sojourners and opportunists, who have made the International Settlement in Shanghai their fiefdom during the boom years of foreign trade. An older, more resigned Violet leaves Shanghai for a valley that lies in the shadows of five impassable mountains. Across an ocean, in San Francisco, Lulu reflects on impetuous decisions that led to tragedy. She recalls her lonely girlhood, the shocking behavior of her father, and the moment she first saw the painting of "The Valley of Amazement"--as well as its beguiling painter. A long-awaited letter, passed from hand to hand, finally reaches Lulu and she goes to the bucolic Hudson River Valley, the inspiration for the painting, and also where lies and truth can finally be unearthed.
Ultimately, this is a story of the many hard facets of love that underlie fragile hope and the near impossibility of forgiveness--territory that Tan hones with characteristic humor, insight, and poignant truth.