‘The Valley of Amazement’: book review

Amy Tan’s new novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” is rather odd.It’s no surprise that the “Joy Luck Club” author again offers a literary exploration of complex mother-daughter relationships, but her tale of a Shanghai courtesan is overwrought with dramatic developments worthy of a telenovela. Really, how much can happen to one woman in a lifetime?

Tan’s novel of course brings to mind Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha,” as we once again delve into the intimate world of courtesans and concubines. Taking us there is 7-year-old Violet Minturn, the daughter of the proprietor of what is, in 1905, the classiest courtesan house in Shanghai. It’s also the only one run by a white woman, Lulu Minturn.

Amy Tan’s new novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” explores a difficult mother-daughter relationship.

The Hidden Jade Path, as it is known to Westerners, is Violet’s erotically infused playground as a child. Given to peeking into the courtesans’ private chambers, her sex ed comes early and is explicit. What remains a mystery is her mother’s past growing up in San Francisco. Who her father is and what happened to him is another provocative, unanswered question.

Through a wicked turn of events, Violet is sold to another high-class brothel as a 15-year-old virgin courtesan to be deflowered by the highest bidder. Tan delivers a delicately phrased but quite thorough exposition on the sexual skills a courtesan must cultivate. She also immerses a reader in the exotic world they occupied as the celebrities of the time, gossiped about incessantly in the “mosquito press,” but doomed to short-lived careers and brutal penury afterward.

In “The Bully Pulpit,” historian Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts the first decade of the Progressive era.

My, how Violet’s fortunes change over the course of a lifetime. At one turn she’s a celebrated beauty, the next a concubine sexual slave in the provinces. A brief interlude of happiness in between ends when her Western lover dies and their daughter is forcibly taken from her to be raised in Croton-on-Hudson by his widow. And, there’s even more …

The plot does verge on the silly at times, but Tan is such an accomplished storyteller that she almost pulls it off. And the underlying appeal of this book is the weave she makes of the three generations of Minturn women — Violet’s daughter returns to take her place in the story — struggling to accept their fate and each other.

Adam Berlin tells the story of three friends pursuing different dreams in “Both Members of the Club.”

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

“The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism” by Doris Kearns Goodwin. The popular historian, and author of “Team of Rivals,” tells the tale of the muckraking press amid the larger story of the tumultuous first decade of the Progressive era when some feared the center could not hold.

“Both Members of the Club” by Adam Berlin. The author of “The Number of Missing” now tells another Manhattan-based story about a trio of friends that includes a professional fighter, an aspiring actor and an artist. The last is about to stage her first gallery show just as the fighter’s world is coming unseamed. He can’t take the punches anymore. Tough stuff.

“Tatiana: An Arkady Renko Novel” by Martin Cruz Smith. Renko, an investigator first introduced in the old-school best seller “Gorky Park,” has made the transition to New Russia, where the crimes are as dirty and nasty as ever. A reporter is murdered, and following the trail, Renko is led to Kaliningrad, a Cold War “secret” city where only bad things happen.

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