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Originally published Sunday, December 1, 2013 at 3:03 AM

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‘The Valley of Amazement’: a courtesan’s story

Amy Tan’s new novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” follows the colorful story of a young woman in old Shanghai who is drafted against her will into the business of being a courtesan. Tan will read Thursday at Seattle’s University Temple United Methodist Church.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Amy Tan

The author of “The Valley of Amazement” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday at the University Temple United Methodist Church, 1415 N.E. 43rd St., Seattle; free, sponsored by the University Book Store (206-634-3400 or

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‘The Valley of Amazement’

by Amy Tan

Harper, 608 pp., $29.99

In her sixth novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” Amy Tan takes up a familiar theme from her earlier works — the mother-daughter dynamic — in a three-generation saga. Setting the novel in Shanghai, San Francisco and New York, Tan, author of “The Joy Luck Club,” tells the stories of girls and mothers who lose each other and reunite years later.

Violet Minturn grows up in her mother’s courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 1900s. The family of her Chinese father won’t allow him to marry her white American mother, and Violet thinks of herself as an American. When her mother, Lulu, is tricked into leaving Shanghai in pursuit of another child who was taken from her, Violet is kidnapped and sold to another courtesan house as a virgin whose “defloration” will bring a high price. She must accept a reality that conflicts with her sense of freedom.

Violet’s emotional support comes from Magic Gourd, a has-been courtesan who trains her for the profession. Because the voice that Tan develops for the character of Magic Gourd is so delightfully salty, chirpy and pragmatic, this section reads like a satirical manual, covering all the coy, rehearsed theatrics of the business.

Magic Gourd instructs the 14-year-old in the basics of pleasuring and flattering men, conveying the illusion of virginity, dealing with envious rivals and choosing her own nickname; she also teaches her the stories and songs she will need to entertain men at parties, come-hither postures for garden viewing, and discipline in dealing with cheapskate patrons. “What matters the most,” Magic Gourd emphasizes, “is a mix of strategy, cunning, honesty, patience, and the readiness to grab every opportunity.”

Violet naturally becomes jaded by courtesan life, but her friendship and squabbling with Magic Gourd remain lively and fresh.

Space limitations and a spoiler aversion compel me to bypass here the many vicissitudes that Violet and Magic Gourd face. Just when things are looking very promising for them, another kidnapping comes to pass. As if to distract the reader from the victimization of the heroine, herself a kidnapped daughter, Tan shifts gears with comic relief in a long picaresque section set in a provincial village. This section brings about a heroic escape by Violet and Magic Gourd, and their valiant rescue of another former courtesan hobbling on bound feet.

Violet and her mother are eventually reunited, as are Violet and her own grown daughter. These reunions are startling and well done, considering how long they are in the making.

My only complaint is that Violet’s mother, the audacious Lulu, who followed her lover from San Francisco to Shanghai and became an outspoken madame who gave clients business advice, fades too quickly once she leaves Shanghai, only to be remotely useful to Violet later.

The Shanghai of the early-20th century, where everyone is on the make and women must survive by their wits, is offset by the epigraph of Walt Whitman’s poem, “Quicksand Years”: “One’s-self, must never give way — that is the final substance — that out of all is sure.” Tan has created a vivid work of literature, full of deftly drawn and colorful characters, exploring the idea that in a world of grief and cruelty, where a woman’s fate is not hers — or her mother’s — to determine, what she can keep is her self.

Wingate Packard is an English teacher and freelance writer.

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