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Book Review: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan (3/5)

26 Feb

I picked up a copy of this book when it was clearanced at the local big box store. At the time, I hadn’t read anything by Tan. This past summer, I read her for the first time and I was excited to read this one. I guess I thought it would be similar to her other book. Boy, was I wrong.

Cover Image via Goodreads

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

Other books by Tan reviewed on this blog:

The Joy Luck Club (and movie review)

Summary from Goodreads:

A sweeping, evocative epic of two women’s intertwined fates and their search for identity, that moves from the lavish parlors of Shanghai courtesans to the fog-shrouded mountains of a remote Chinese village.

Spanning more than forty years and two continents, The Valley of Amazement resurrects pivotal episodes in history: from the collapse of China’s last imperial dynasty, to the rise of the Republic, the explosive growth of lucrative foreign trade and anti-foreign sentiment, to the inner workings of courtesan houses and the lives of the foreign “Shanghailanders” living in the International Settlement, both erased by World War II.

Of course, as always, I didn’t read the book summary. And reading it now, even if I had, I don’t think I would have realized it focused so much on courtesans as it did. Violet grew up living in one, worked in one, and almost owned one at a point. This didn’t bother me too much at first, but it got to be a bit much and it felt grating and tiresome after a while. I felt there were a lot of side plots unnecessary parts of the book. Violet’s marriage to Perpetual is a major one and I grew frustrated during that part of the book. The story was very long and in the end, I felt it could have been shortened.

For the most part, I felt the characters were credible. However, there were times I found them a bit hard to stomach. When Lucretia and Violet lost their children, they seemed very resigned to this fact. I couldn’t buy that. I couldn’t believe that a mother would have her child taken from her and lay in bed for three days and then be OK. It seemed a stretch and not one I was inclined to forgive twice. Other than that, I liked the characters and how they were developed.

Magic Gourd was a great character. I liked her sarcasm and wit and her fragile image of herself and how Violet had to speak to her to keep things going between the two of them. I marveled at her dedication to Violet and the way she was quickly made into a family member wherever Violet went. I was glad she got to tell her story a bit, too, and share how she came to be a courtesan.

These characters weren’t ones I related to well. Their living situation was very different from anything I’ve experienced and the things that motivated them weren’t things I’ve ever experienced or been motivated by. I think this is part of why this book felt like a chore for the majority of the middle. I lost interest in the character’s lives.

Amy Tan
Image via Harper Collins

The flashback to Lucretia’s childhood through the end of the book interested me most. Finding out how much the women’s’ lives parallelled each other was interesting and I liked how we found out about Flora’s life and how things had turned out for her. She was such a major character who we also knew so little about. It was a really interesting way to see a character and I liked her a lot.

I disliked the long advice that Magic Gourd gave Violet about being a courtesan. I feel bad saying this because I think Amy Tan narrated this part and I wonder why she felt that part was what she wanted to narrate. I didn’t feel it was necessary information beyond Magic Gourd’s background and story. It felt like filler, background information that had been found and that was added into the story because it was too painful to cut.

The audiobook had three narrators: Nancy Wu, Joyce Bean, and Amy Tan. I’m not sure between Wu and Bean who narrated Violet and who did Lucretia but both did a great job. I liked how they read with sarcasm and emotion. These were very emotional stories and their emphasis and emotion were well deserved. As I mentioned, Tan read Magic Gourd’s chapter and it was a segment I didn’t particularly like. I’m fairly certain it was her because the part wasn’t as well performed as the professionals, which didn’t surprise me. This isn’t to say it was poorly done, just that she’s not a professional. It’s always nice to hear an author read their own words.

The mother-daughter relationships in this book took center stage. Lucretia and Violet took many years to repair their relationship but were able to repair the damage between them eventually and find a way to connect and be friends. One hopes that Violet and Flora are able to do the same thing given time. Magic Gourd was a strong mother figure for Violet and it was good to see that she was loved and respected throughout the novel. Even with Lucretia off in America, there was someone looking out for Violet and helping her the way a mother would.

Writer’s Takeaway: When I’m writing, I try to be conscious of when I’m writing and when I’m rambling. I try to think about how what I’m writing will affect the story and if it’s important. It seemed to me that Tan didn’t always do this, especially with Perpetual. I wonder if there was a major change to the plot, to which Perpetual was originally important. The amount of sex and time spent in the courtesan houses seemed a bit unnecessary as well. It took away from the mother/daughter stories.

Overall, well written but a bit of a drag in places. Three out of Five Stars

This book fulfills the 1900-1919 time period of the When Are You Reading? Challenge.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan | FictionFan’s Book Reviews
The Valley of Amazement- Amy Tan | The Home Book Club
The Valley of Amazement and Shifting Identities | American Literature in the World
Book Review: The Valley of Amazement | For the Someday Book
The Valley of Amazement | whatsannereading