Book Review | The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

Amy Tan
Advance Reader Copy, 589 pages
Publication date:
November 5th 2013
Received from publisher in exchange for an honest review.


Moving between the dazzling world of courtesans in turn of the century Shanghai, a remote Chinese mountain village, and the rough-hewn streets of nineteenth-century San Francisco, Amy Tan’s sweeping new novel maps the lives of three generations of women connected by blood and history-and the mystery of an evocative painting known as “The Valley of Amazement.”

Violet is one of the most celebrated courtesans in Shanghai, a beautiful and intelligent woman who has honed her ability to become any man’s fantasy since her start as a “Virgin Courtesan” at the age of twelve. Half-Chinese and half-American, she moves effortlessly between the East and the West. But her talents belie her private struggle to understand who she really is and her search for a home in the world. Abandoned by her mother, Lucia, and uncertain of her father’s identity, Violet’s quest to truly love and be loved will set her on a path fraught with danger and complexity-and the loss of her own daughter.

Lucia, a willful and wild American woman who was once herself the proprietress of Shanghai’s most exclusive courtesan house, nurses her own secret wounds, which she first sustained when, as a teenager, she fell in love with a Chinese painter and followed him from San Francisco to Shanghai. Her search for penance and redemption will bring her to a startling reunion with Flora, Violet’s daughter, and will shatter all that Violet believed she knew about her mother.

Spanning fifty years and two continents, The Valley of Amazement is a deeply moving narrative of family secrets, the legacy of trauma, and the profound connections between mothers and daughters, that returns readers to the compelling territory Amy Tan so expertly mapped in The Joy Luck Club. With her characteristic wisdom, grace, and humor, she conjures a story of the inheritance of love, its mysteries and senses, its illusions and truths.


Okay confession time I’m probably one of the very few who haven’t read Tan’s previous well known novel The Joy Luck Club. I mean I have heard of it and I have read many books with similar themes of mother-daughter relationships and the Chinese immigrant experience but for some reason haven’t read anything by Amy Tan until now

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan set in the early 20th century and it is a story mostly about the life of Violet Minturn, a half Chinese, half American girl living in China. Separated from her American mother at an early age, Violet is left with no choice but to become a “virgin courtesan”. This was during a time where being a courtesan was a career for women with no other alternatives. They were however afforded much more freedom than other Chinese women during this time which is really sad if you think about it.

While I was initially excited to read this book, my excitement died down when I discovered it was about the world of courtesans. However after a very strong start that did not die down, I am felt myself being bewitched by Violet’s story. Tan’s writing is really lovely and it sweeps you away to this time period as you follow the characters from Shanghai to the countryside in China to San Francisco. Throughout the novel I felt like I had become part of their world as I got to bear witness to a lot of behind the scenes stuff that you don’t usually get to read about in your history textbooks. The packaging and the design for this book is stunningly gorgeous for both arc and finished copy which makes it a perfect match for the story contained within.

One of my favourite things about this book was the relationships between many of the women in the book. In particular I loved the relationship between Violet and Magic Gourd especially how over time Magic Gourd became a surrogate mother to Violet. The two of them also worked very well as a team and I loved the chapter entitled “Etiquette For Beauties of the Boudoir” which is basically Magic Gourd teaching Violet how to be the best courtesan. I also liked the parts where we get to read about Violet mother’s story because we get the true story of how Golden Dove and Violet’s mother met and came to work together. I found that their relationship mirrored the relationship between Magic Gourd and Violet which made the story all the more interesting. The only thing I disliked about this book was how the adult Violet was so easily tricked like her mother was at the beginning of the story though I know it was necessary for the sake of the story.

The Valley of Amazement is an elegant account of the complicated world of courtesans in China and how one girl struggles to come to terms with whom she is and who her mother is. This was one book that broke my heart before putting it back together only to break it again. And although parts of it reminded me of Memoirs of a Geisha, I ended up liking this book much more. I would highly recommend this book if you like historical fiction especially those set in China.

If you like this book, you’ll love: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (my review)

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Regardless of how this book came into my possession, the above review consists of my honest opinion of the book and my opinion only.