Amy Tan's 'Valley of Amazement' is An Incredible Portrait of an Unstable World

Ever since publishing her first book, The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan has been a formidable literary talent, but in her latest book, The Valley of Amazement (Ecco), she has truly outdone herself. The novel is an epic saga stretching from the narrow streets of 19th century San Francisco to the high-class courtesan houses of Shanghai to the dusty, backwater villages deep in China’s interior. It is vivid, compassionate, and expertly done.

The story centers on Violet Minturn, the daughter of an American woman who runs Shanghai’s most celebrated courtesan house, a place where both Western and Chinese businessmen can come together to broker deals and make valuable business contacts. Violet grows up speaking Chinese as easily as English, watching beautiful women court wealthy and powerful men as her mother subtly maneuvers and manipulates those same men’s strings without them even noticing.

But early 20th century Shanghai is far from a stable place to live, especially not for foreigners, and at age 14, Violet finds her life turned upside down. Forced to constantly reinvent herself, The Valley of Amazement is the story of her remarkable life, lived in world where a woman’s situation can change in an instant and where fate is always uncertain.

As a woman in a world that is undeniably controlled by men, Violet is able to gain power through her connections to powerful figures, to support herself through them, but her place is never secure, and in this lies the heart of the novel’s tension – the idea that anything could happen. Violet could seemingly reach wealth and security at any moment, even when the number of pages left to read definitively suggest otherwise. Or she could fall into ruin without forewarning. Her life is tied to the men she attaches herself to, and her fate is thus dependent on their interest and their business decisions.

Tan has an expert understanding of the world in which her characters operate, a world in which money, power, ego, and love are all inextricable, and it is evident that book is extensively researched, so much so that the historical details seem utterly natural. But her true triumph comes in crafting a character who remains distinct and constant in the midst of shifting circumstances and her own need to make herself over again and again. Violet, as protagonist and narrator, grows more complex with every page, a woman shaped by heartbreak but not defined by it, a woman both stubborn and pragmatic, passionate and wary, reserved yet longing for companionship.

As we watch Violet’s life unfold, we cheer for her from the time she is a small, unruly child, and we keep cheering as she grows into an anxious young adult, a tempestuous teen, a confident lady, a haunted young woman, a mature adult. She is so well drawn that she feels real, and we follow her struggles as though they were those of a close friend, hoping against hope that everything turns out alright despite the odds.

The novel is a masterful construction spanning fifty years of ups and downs and changes to China, Shanghai, and the world. Tan has crafted characters so realistic they seem to breathe and a tense world that will keep readers on the edge of their seats for all 589 pages.