of my favorite writers of historical fiction is Amy Tan. I think I've
read all her fiction (except her children's books) and have always
wanted to read her nonfiction. What's more, I'm fairly sure that her Joy Luck Club was pretty much the first book on tape I listened to, so you know I have a fondness for her work.
When I was given the chance to listen to her newest novel, The Valley of Amazement, I couldn't wait to get started. This book takes us to turn-of-the-twentieth-century Shanghai, a time of political and social change in China, and focuses on one Tan's favorite themes: the relationships between mothers and daughters.
- Principal plot: This is the story of Chinese-American Violet Minturn who grew up in her American mother's high-class courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 1900s. When she was barely a teen, Violet was separated from her mother through a betrayal and forced into a courtesan's life, while her mother was on a ship to San Francisco. The novel follows Violet's journey as she adapts to her new life, balances her dual heritage, searches for love, and comes to terms with her mother.
- Three voices: The majority of The Valley of Amazement is told through Violet's eyes. Although she is determined, smart, and resourceful, Violet is not always a likeable character and has a tendency for self-centeredness. Magic Gourd offers the perspective of an older courtesan who accepted her lot in life more easily than did Violet; she is street smart and takes the young girl under her wing. Lucia, Violet's mother, who has trained herself to rein in her emotions, reveals her own difficult past, life choices, and losses.
- General thoughts: Despite the focus on mothers and daughters and intergenerational conflict, this wasn't Amy Tan's strongest work. My main issue is that neither Violet nor her mother is a sympathetic character, and I found it difficult to root for them. In addition, because much of Magic Gourd's chapters and the fascinating information about the courtesan life first appeared in Tan's Rules for Virgins (published a couple of years ago), the story didn't feel fresh to me. On the other hand, I was interested in the changing social and political climate of Shanghai after the fall of the Ching Dynasty, and it's clear that Tan did her research.
- Audiobook: The unabridged audiobook (Brilliance Audio; 24 hr, 51 min) had three narrators: Nancy Wu read Violet's chapters, Amy Tan herself read Magic Gourd's, and Joyce Bean read Lucia's. Unfortunately, the narrators' performances were not strong enough to keep me invested in the novel. (My full audiobook review will be published by AudioFile magazine.)
Source: Review (audio) (see review policy)
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