Published by Ecco on November 5th, 2014
Genres: adult, historical
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A sweeping, evocative epic of two women’s intertwined fates and their search for identity, which moves from the lavish parlors of Shanghai courtesan houses to the mountains of a remote Chinese village and the fog-shrouded streets of San Francisco Spanning more than forty years and two continents, Amy Tan’s newest 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.” Moving from the collapse of China’s last imperial dynasty to the rise of the Republic, the growth of lucrative foreign trade and anti-foreign sentiment, and the inner workings of courtesan houses, The Valley of Amazement interweaves the story of Violet, a celebrated Shanghai courtesan on a quest for both love and identity, and her mother, Lucia, an American woman whose search for penance leads them to an unexpected reunion. The Valley of Amazement is a deeply moving narrative of family secrets, legacies and the profound connections between mothers and daughters, reminiscent of the compelling territory Tan so expertly mapped in The Joy Luck Club. With her characteristic wisdom, grace and humour, Tan conjures up a story of inherited trauma, desire and deception, and the power and stubbornness of love.
When Christina at A Reader of Fictions nabbed a copy of The Valley of Amazement for me at BEA, I nearly fell over. You see, I wanted this book from the second I heard about it. I love books about Asian cultures and a book about Chinese courtesans in Shanghai? I was salivating. And it’s a really big book. A doorstop, really. I made the decision to put it in front of a lot of other review copies I had long before the release date because I just could not handle waiting any longer. I knew it would take me a while to read too so I read another book while I was reading this one, and breaking it up into sections turned out to be a fantastic idea. I don’t think I could have read it straight though. There were some seriously heavy topics, and this book was incredibly depressing throughout most of the narrative. This is the case with most Asian fiction I have read, and let the record show that I was totally okay with it.
But where the book completely fell apart for me was with the length and the characters. For starters, this book goes into an extreme amount of detail. And when I say extreme, I mean EXTREME. To the point that it was just about one of the slowest paced books I have ever read. It was a slogfest. There were so many sections where I found myself thinking, “Is this really necessary?” It repeated itself SOOO much. And it never seemed to end. I honestly think about 200 pages could have been knocked off of this book and it would have not made that much of a difference. I wanted to be connected to the characters and the story, but there was way too much description, exposition, and repetition for that to ever happen. I don’t know if this is the case with all of Amy Tan’s novels, but if it is I am going to have problems because I have two others that I own and have not read yet.
I can say that I liked the book more in the first half. The whole time I was waiting for it to go somewhere, and then it ended up not getting there for a reallllllyyy long time and it lost me. I enjoyed learning about the courtesan business, though I expected more somehow. When the book got to the scenes where Violet and Magic Gourd were living in the mountain village, it lost me completely. I almost DNFed I was so bored. But I had already invested over 300 pages and I wasn’t about to stop now. And then there was the fact that Violet didn’t seem to care all that much when her daughter was taken from her. This really bothered me. She was only mentioned once or twice, but for that, Violet just went on with her life as if this was just okay and expected. WHAT?! No. Not realistic at all, and if it truly is, then Violet is one of the most selfish characters I have ever seen in a work of literature. But I don’t honestly believe the author meant to do this. I feel like it was sort of forgotten about, and that is clearly not okay either.
There is no question that Amy Tan can write, and she does an amazing job with the historical period and culture in The Valley of Amazement (for the most part), but this book just did nothing for me. It was way too long and I never liked the characters (any of them), and it got to a point in the book where I was just ready for it to be over. The plot was too thin for the length of the book. The characters were selfish. The only thing I can praise is the writing and technical prowess that Amy Tan has. And for that alone this book gets two stars. How I wish I could give it more.