The Valley of Amazement
Getting through The Valley of Amazement is a bit of a trudge, honestly. Which is hard to admit, given that it is such an earnest work of fiction.
And harder still to admit because it is the product of one of our best living authors, Amy Tan, whose The Joy Luck Club and The Hundred Secret Senses, among others, were such successful fusions of historical, literary and popular fiction.
And while the simple truth is that lesser Tan is better than no Tan at all, it is also the truth that Amazement is overly long and rather tired—both in terms of pacing and subject matter—from the first page onward.
It rather strikes the reader as the sort of material that once upon a time would have been filmed with Shirley MacLaine (dressed in green silk, her eyes discretely tugged back in the corners) playing the Eurasian courtesan with a mind of her own and a heart of gold, and half of Hollywood’s leading men (Dean Martin? Frank Sinatra?) as the lovers who, variously, love her, shower her with riches, marry her, abuse her, and die while she clutches them, crying oh so beautifully.
In many ways The Valley of Amazement is all that we have come to expect from Tan: a multigenerational saga exploring the bond between female characters, set against historic turbulence in the faraway ports and villages of China and good, old fashioned San Francisco.
Amazement opens in 1905 Shanghai (it will travel forward into the World War Two era, dragging the Boxer Rebellion, the flu epidemic, the San Francisco earthquake, and World War One along with it), with our narrator, young Violet Minturn, speaking:
“When I was seven, I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl in race, manners, and speech, whose mother, Lulu Minturn, was the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai.”
Turns out that Violet is only partially correct about that.
She discovers early on that she is the daughter of an American mother and a Chinese national, a genetic reality that presents no small number of challenges at the turn of the 20th century, just as it also brings her unforeseen opportunities (playing to her exotic nature, she becomes famous as a mixed blood courtesan and also learns that her ability to look either Chinese or Western can come in very handy in times of crisis, as well as her fluency in both English and Chinese).
Unfortunately, these discoveries are hard earned by Violet and by the reader as well. In 600 pages of storytelling, Amy Tan calls upon plotlines she has put to better use in the past, most notably the stories of mothers who desert their children, or have them ripped out of their arms, creating separations spanning thousands of miles and decades of loneliness and suffering and loss.
As is common in Ms. Tan’s fiction, it is the relationship between women that is the essential element, with the mother-daughter bond (or lack of same) standing above and beyond all else. Here, as in her earlier work, men seem to be almost incidental creatures, abusers, betrayers, wooers, lovers and, almost always in one way or another, losers. It’s the women who are Tan’s heroines; they are always and ever braver, stronger, wiser, and more interesting than the men.
But the question is whether or not they are more likeable, more worthy of writing about.
Here we are told the stories of three generations of women—Lulu, Violet, and Flora—each of whom, as written, is spoiled, entitled, self-centered, demanding, charmless and rather gruff.
And although the first two manage to become “better” people when life more or less beats the stuffing out of them (and the third, young Flora, is consigned to a life in which is puzzles over her continual odd sense of “otherness”), the long, long journey (when finally faced with the reality of being given Lulu’s story in Chapter 12, over 400 pages into the tale, the reader groaned: way too much, way too late) from vixen to mensch makes Violet’s weeks-long slog to Moon Pond Village in the back of a rickety wooden cart seem like a daytrip.
(And let it also be noted that it is irksome that both Violet and Lulu are the Lucys in the story, while their Chinese best friends, sisters-in-all-but-blood, always get to be the Ethels. Both ladies, Magic Gourd and Golden Dove are older, fatter and pettier than the Americans. Both end up poorer, in lesser marriages and yet endlessly devoted to their designated Lucy.)
Throughout The Valley of Amazement, Tan seems guilty of the saddest of literary crimes: self-plagiarism. Especially in the long closing scenes of the book in which she re-works material that she used to far greater result in The Joy Luck Club.
To be fair, Amazement is in some ways more than just a retread.
Amy Tan is a writer of such skill that the words on the page, as they have been selected and arranged, cannot bring the reader anything other than joy.
As here, when young Lulu, upon meeting the man who will become the father of her child Violet, sees for the first time his painting, the name of which gives the book its title:
“The room became shinier. The crystal drops of the chandelier sparkled and flashed, the halos of candles grew long. The faces of others had changed into strangers, and only Lu Shing was familiar. That was the moment I was knocked nearly senseless. I had never known this feeling before, yet I recognized it as being felled by love. I fought to remain calm in front of the others as I held on to my secret. I now noticed a small brass plaque on the bottom of the frame. I read it aloud. ‘The Valley of Amazement.’ Murmurs went around about the suitability of the name.”
Indeed, the unfolding of the story of the painting gives the book all of its best moments. It is a wry, cynical tale, one that exposes the nature of the creative act, be it the paining of a picture or the writing of a book, and the differences between creations that are faux and those that are true.
Had the rest of it—the foot stamping and the tears—been shortened, tightened, and the story of the picture itself enlarged, the result may well have included the promised sense of amazement.
After all, pictures are worth a thousand words. In this case, this painting may well have been worth the 120,000 that Amy Tan had to work with.