In her latest novel, "The Valley of Amazement," author Amy Tan effectively uses her own family history to develop an intricate novel of contrasts.
In a museum catalog, Ms. Tan found a photograph of the Ten Beauties of Shanghai. The Beauties are winners of a contest among Chinese courtesans selected by their patrons as the most beautiful. Ms. Tan recalled a photograph of her grandmother, in similar costume, that was also taken in a Western photography studio in Shanghai.
Inspired by questions about her grandmother's life story, Ms. Tan developed a fictional account that links both sides of the Pacific Ocean and explores the relationship between a young American mother and her half-American, half-Chinese daughter in the early 20th century.
Violet Minturn is the daughter of Lucretia Minturn, also known as Lulu Mimi, madam of the courtesan house Hidden Jade Path, which caters to both influential Chinese patrons and wealthy Western businessmen.
Lulu is able to negotiate both sides of the two worlds and allow them to socialize separately and do business together in the middle. Lonely but haughty Violet grows up in this environment of courtesans and wealthy men, yet has a difficult relationship with her mother.
Lulu chooses to leave Shanghai for America but naively leaves the care of the virgin Violet to her con artist lover, who sells her to another courtesan house while Lulu waits aboard ship. Violet's story is a classic woman's story. She loves passionately, loves again truly, experiences the heartache of lost relationships, the loss of a daughter, grief, physical abuse, danger, true friendship, and kindness from the least likely sources. Eventually, Violet learns of her lost brother and her absent Chinese father, and she learns that her haughty American attitude and green-eyed appearance are meaningless as she builds a life for herself as a courtesan alone in Shanghai.
She lives as a mother and wife in the best of homes and as a Third Wife in the worst circumstances. She is as resourceful and mature as she is passionate and naïve.
The maternal devotion of Magic Gourd, an older courtesan, tempers Violet's impetuous nature. Violet learns to think before acting to assure her own success and, later, her survival.
Lulu's story is that of a daring girl who travels across the Pacific with hope, only to face the reality of a life alone in Shanghai. Lulu's history, however, comes very late in this saga. Most of the book is told from Violet's perspective as the pivotal character in the story.
Her mother's business acumen follows her as she grows into adulthood. She later gives birth to a daughter with every intention of being a better mother than Lulu had been to her. Through unfortunate circumstances, Violet loses this opportunity and continues her life with only Magic Gourd's companionship.
Amy Tan's painstaking attention to detail spans both the material goods paid to the courtesans in Shanghai and the San Francisco home of Lulu's family. A sometimes tedious chapter, "Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir," describes the expectations of new courtesans as told by Magic Gourd.
This chapter is the bridge between Violet's old life with her mother and her new professional life. It is the "stuff" that gives the characters value. Insects preserved in amber, rolled paintings hidden and moved from one location to another, repurposed furniture from a storage shed, the common violet (a weed to some, but beauty to another), jewelry and clothing all reflect the values of the characters in the book.
Human connections, though, seem to be lost in ancient tradition. Violet's first patron and lifelong friend, Loyalty, tells her after their tumultuous relationship, "Accept love when it's offered, Violet."
But, in the world of Chinese tradition where the courtesan is a class to herself, not wife, concubine or prostitute, what is love? For both Violet and Lulu, this question is the story of the "Valley of Amazement."
Ms. Tan's family told her a tale far from this story when she asked them about the two photographs. Her family assured her that her grandmother's life was honorable. Whatever the true story may be, "The Valley of Amazement" is a story of love lost and found, with all that goes with it.
Lorinda Hayes: Klmnrhayes@yahoo.com.