Sparked by Words

Like so many kids, I was sure I lived in the home of strangers, people who’d stolen me out of my royal crib and thrust their last name upon me. To wash dishes. To mind the younger kids. To iron laundry. To be quiet in the presence of others. Life would be wonderful when my true parents finally claimed me and set me free. My dolls acted out my dilemma, standing in for my sojourn among foreigners, risking reputation and security in tenacious pursuit of true identity. If you are female, you are nodding your head, maybe with a wry smile. If you are male, you scratch your head a few times, be quiet in the presence of others? So? But young men bristle under their own mistreatment. Send us to the corner once, the punishment seethes in our marrow forever.

So it was no surprise that The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan touched my childhood longing to be reunited with my long lost family. It’s just as much a fabricated story as the one I wove about myself, except that Tan is a much better writer. I’ve read all of her novels, each evocative of other locales, other cultures, reverberations of the relationships that define our human limitations and echo our noble aspirations.

Violet, of the phoenix eyes, is the American daughter of the madam of Hidden Jade Path, an exclusive house of courtesans in Shanghai in the early 1900’s. In other words, she is born in a whorehouse but in a prestigious part of town, one that caters to wealthy Americans and powerful Chinese. No, my young life was not so bad, and I can barely imagine a person born to be abused in such fashion, yet I know how much Tan researches history for her books. An ember smolders in the ash.

I’d already read In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant and Geisha by Arthur Golden, both about women in sexual service. Women in bondage to male authority is not an unusual topic, and if not the primary idea it is often a major component of stories. Still, each book exposes something unexpected – debasing and maddening – about how half the world’s population is forced to endure in order to survive. One would think I’d be a bit inured. Maybe it’s the estrogen in me screaming, “Enough.”

Young Violet’s rebellious and curious nature finds her spying on those who frame sex as an alluring and mysterious contract between men of high station and women of unique talents. Violet knows she is part orphan so she also spies on her mother, trying to ascertain who her father is. She learns there is a brother living in America, a child her mother loves far more. She is left behind when her mother escapes back to the States as Chinese rebellion against the imperial reign looms. She’s then sold to a competitor’s bordello where she is forced into a life of prostitution. She falls in love with an impoverished man she cannot marry, as did her mother years before. In the cruelest turn, she becomes pregnant with a child she cannot keep, and her baby girl is taken from her.

Violet is tutored about dramatic (and bizarre) lessons on how to advertise one’s virginity to be sold to the highest bidder, then how to perform sexual moves to ensure the most male pleasure – and guarantee return liaisons. Her instructor, Magic Gourd, advises Violet on the professional name by which she’ll be known as a courtesan – A Waterfall Dream. “We can come up with the exact meaning later when decide who you really are,” One after another, each experience is more vulgar and humiliating, acts of betrayal, manipulation, and violence. Confronted with dire circumstances, Violet survives, learning to use men as much as they use her. Yet always she longs for love, family, identity, and her daughter.

Toward the end of the story, we again meet Lulu Mintern, Violet’s mother, and discover the history of the woman whose flight for independence wrought the worst kind of confinement – estrangement from her daughter. The story of The Valley of Amazement thus comes full circle, a reflection in the daughter and granddaughter of the grandmother, one generation impacting the next. The title of the book is taken from a painting created by the artist whom Lulu loved, the motivation for her to go to China as a lovelorn teenager. The image haunts some viewers, promises others, depicting illusion or reality depending on what one needs to see.

Amy Tan’s books explore identity and mother-daughter relationships. Eventually I realized I was not a stolen princess consigned to a dreggy life; I really am the ordinary daughter of ordinary people. But I’ve struggled all my life with my relationship with my mother, always needing more love and understanding than she could give. It isn’t easy to read a book where women are a negotiable commodity for a particular attribute of their bodies. China is not unique in forcing women and young girls to labor on their backs, then or now. Amazement divulges the complexity and commonality of human estrangement in a way that is both intimate and universal. My problems are my own, issues I’ll have to resolve, and I am damn lucky that I never faced the brutality of Violet and Lulu’s lives. But they’re also like those of everyone else who struggles to find a way to get along. I’ve come to terms with myself, my family, my mother, not because of Tan’s stories, but because I grew up. Not satisfaction, but a status I can accept.

Maybe it’s the estrogen in me screaming, “Don’t you dare. I know who I am.”

I look forward to learning about your favorite V fiction books.


Other books that were serious contenders for V:

The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel

The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle


Book cover image courtesy: Google images and Harper Collins Publishers


Comments on: "V is for The Valley of Amazement" (29)

  1. I have never read a book about the relationship between a mother and daughter. It actually sounds intriguing.


    • Very interesting. Most of Tan’s books address this topic. This isn’t the book on which you’d want to model such a relationship, but a book on which you would likely would bore you to tear.

      All of my adult books concern mother-daughter relationships to some degree. If you think that says something about me, you’re probably right.


  2. I haven’t read this Amy Tan book, but her others were great. Based on your review, this sounds excellent.


    • Then you know what an excellent writer she is. Valley is probably darker than her other books though The Bonesetter’s Daughter was also very dark. She gets very deep into the background and psychology of her characters, an aspect of Tan’s writing I really like. Have you ever read the work of Maxine Hong Kingston? She also writes about Chinese-American women and I love her books.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t read her, either. I tend to place dark stories toward the bottom of my TBR pile. Life is dark enough! But I do like reminders now and then. Right now, I’m getting mightily frightened by the horrors of AIs and how they’ll take over the world soon!


      • If you, who understand AIs much better than I, are worried, then I’m really scared.

        Have you read He, She, and It by Marge Piercy? I think you’d love it. What amazes me is that she wrote it in 1991 – talk about prescient!


  3. I loved this book. Some found it too ‘descriptive’ in certain areas, if you know what I mean, but I found the subject matter fascinating. Wonderful story too.


  4. I read Valley of Amazement and while I liked it better than Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning, I didn’t like it as much as Joy Luck Club or Hundred Secret Senses.

    But my FAVORITE V book is actually one of my favorite books period. (Picture me bouncing in my seat as I type this–that’s how much I love this book.) It’s called Vicious, and it’s by V.E. Schwab. On the surface, it’s a superhero origin story, but it’s a story told entirely in gray areas. The good guy isn’t entirely good. The bad guy isn’t entirely bad. In some ways, the “bad guy” is the better person–more of a hero–than the “good guy.” It’s like nothing else I’ve ever read. Schwab is working on a sequel (called Vengeful), and I can’t wait for it.


    • I love these recommendations from you, Ilene, as they’re nearly always books I know nothing about. And now, two more V titles. So much fun to expand my reading base. Thank you for stopping by.

      How is your project going? I love the premise of your new WIP and hope you’re well along with it.


      • I am deep in the muck of revisions on the WIP, in the midst of restructuring the entire thing. I figure it’s going to take me another 10 drafts to get it where I want it to be. 😉

        What are you working on these days?


      • A story very loosely based on the stories my parents told me about their youths. Very loosely because I found out nearly all of them were untrue! So, a story about two families doping during the Depression.
        And trying to find a way to self pub my other stories as it’s not only looking like the only practical alternative, but also like the one where I get to keep my own story intact and not manhandled by agents or editors.

        Good luck with your own. Email me if you want a reader.


  5. You must not have hit menopause if your estrogen is still screaming “Don’t you dare. I know who I am.” I have to take an estrogen pill that whispers “How did you get to be so old?”


  6. I read The Joy Luck Club a long time ago and really loved it. Tan really writes about interesting women and I loved her descriptive passages. I think women and men are saddled with many cultural expectations that are less than fun. But then I wonder if some of these expectations aren’t just echoing traits that the human species discovered led to the best survival rates. The complimentary elements that men and women bring to life offer gifts but can be easily corrupted.


    • True to a degree perhaps, and also true that some women take as much advantage of subjugating other women, who are often young girls, as ruthlessly as men. But it’s tragic that enslaving girls (and boys) for sexual sale remains a lucrative business all over the world, and it’s primarily men of power, status, and money promoting this horror. An entire book could be written – many have been – but I’m going to end this now before my bandwagon collapses under me.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Gotta love bandwagons. I’m living with someone who was sexually abused by her mother and trafficked by her mother!!! Evil comes from both sexes. How many wives of influential world leaders stand by their man when the man engages in sexual exploitation of the young and powerless–far too many. But as a “spiritual” person I believe the true evil power is at play keeping the sexes engaged in battles against each other instead of uniting against things like sex slavery and human trafficking in general. My time to jump off the wagon now. 🙂


      • Thanks for your thoughts. I must end this discussion here.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I have read great reviews of Tan’s books, but hadn’t heard of this one. Sounds interesting, your review is thorough and motivating!


    • I’ve read most of Tan’s books and loved all of them. She gets into Chinese culture and history while addressing people relationships on a universal level. Even if there are many characters, she focuses intimately on two or three. I always sense I understand how her characters feel. You might want to start with “The Joy Luck Club,” her most famous book and a wonderful story.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Wow! This is one terrific review of what sounds like an almost overwhelming and powerful book. I haven’t read it but am very tempted…

    Sharon, my heart goes out to you…it must be hard to find one’s place, sense of belonging and as I am fortunate enough to be very close to my mother I can’t imagine what it would be like to live without that. Your resilience, love and compassion shine through. Warmest wishes to you xx


    • My mom was tough, but understanding (eventually) that she really could not help the condition that dominated her life when she was younger let me (finally) forgive her. She now suffers from advanced stages of Alzheimer’s and I would do anything to have prevented her from this agonizing condition. Thank you for your thoughts – it means a lot to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I haven’t read anything by the author. I’ll do some digging.


    • Her most famous book is probably The Joy Luck Club, and then The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, The Hundred Secret Senses, and Saving Fish from Drowning</em> – all of which I’ve read and enjoyed.


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