In her breakthrough 1989 first novel, “The Joy Luck Club,” Amy Tan explored the generational tensions between four mahjong-playing Old Country mothers and their California daughters with frankness and wit. A daughter’s curiosity about her mother’s hidden past became a continuing theme in Tan’s work, including “The Kitchen God’s Wife” (1991) and “The Bonesetter’s Daughter” (2001).
Her intense and unsentimental new novel, “The Valley of Amazement,” is akin to these earlier works but involving the secrets of an American woman who emigrates to China and the sometimes shocking world of Shanghai courtesans at the beginning of the last century.
Tan uses a child’s perspective to advantage in the book’s opening sections. Her narrator, seven-year-old Violet Minturn, considers herself “a thoroughly American girl in race, manners, and speech.” Her mother, Lulu, is the only white woman who owns a first-class courtesan house in 1905 Shanghai. She breaks taboos in both worlds by catering simultaneously to Chinese and Western clients, many of whom were among the wealthiest in foreign trade. Violet learns early that her mother’s profession is not about sex, but illusion.
Hidden Jade Path, Lulu’s business, is located in a 400-year-old villa, once the summer mansion of a wealthy Ming scholar and renowned poet. In her descriptions of life at Hidden Jade Path, Tan shows how courtesans in the international zone — women whose expenses were underwritten by individual patrons for a year or more — introduce Western fashion, furnishings, and entertainments to China. In the carpeted and tufted Western luxury of her grand salon, Lulu puts men and prospects together for profit. The men, in turn, reward Lulu with gifts of money.
The observant young Violet is aware that the men in the house want her mother for one thing — her “guanxi, as the Chinese called it, her influential connections, as the Westerners put it.” Tan depicts Lulu as an astute businesswoman able to take advantage of new openings in China and Shanghai as a cosmopolitan city where East and West mingle.
“In Shanghai, however, nothing is impossible,” Tan writes. “You have to make the old meet the new, rearrange the furniture, so to speak, and put on a good show. Guile and get. Opportunists welcome.”
Violet’s innocence begins to dissipate when she learns the first of her mother’s secrets — that her father is Chinese, from an aristocratic scholar family. By the time she is 14, her fate mirrors her mother’s. Lulu is deceived into sailing for San Francisco without her daughter, and Violet is kidnapped and sold to a rival courtesan house. With the guidance of Magic Gourd, an older woman from Hidden Jade Path, she accepts her lot. Tan stretches her plot this way and that to show how Violet’s every chance at happiness and legitimacy is thwarted.
Late in the novel, we learn that Lulu was raised in a well-to-do San Francisco family. In 1897, at 16, she became pregnant by Lu Shing, a visiting Chinese painter inspired by the Hudson River School. His painting of a valley glimpsed either while arriving with joy or leaving with relief gives the novel its title. Tan describes movingly how naïve young Lulu’s dream of gaining a foothold for herself in Shanghai as Lu Sheng’s wife is derailed. Hidden Jade Path becomes her only way out. She and her daughter endure many betrayals and dangerous journeys before Tan brings their parallel lives to a convergence.
Tan adds a welcome depth and texture to the novel by integrating glimpses of four decades of upheaval in China. Fireworks and a noisy crowd on Violet’s 14th birthday in 1912 mark the end of the Ching dynasty and the coming of the republic. Anti-foreigner riots make clear the precariousness of Lulu’s business. A pivotal character dies in the 1918 flu pandemic, ending Violet’s brief chance at domestic stability. Over time Violet’s choices are influenced by changes that come with the rise of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party.
Tan wraps up “The Valley of Amazement’’ in 1939 on the eve of World War II. By the time she has finished the haunting tale of these two flawed and resilient women, she has created such an enticing portrait of Shanghai that she makes us nostalgic for a city we can never know.
Jane Ciabattari is vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle. Reach her at email@example.com.