Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Amy Tan's First Book in Eight Years Takes Us to the Courtesan Houses of Shanghai of a Century Ago.

There are lots of books out November 5, but the only one I can really focus on is Amy Tan's The Valley of Amazement. Tan is appearing in Milwaukee at Alverno College on Monday, November 11. This is a ticketed event, and includes a copy of the book. More at the end of this post, but I feel the need to link to the tickets right away.

It's been eight years since her last novel, Saving Fish from Drowning, and Tan has both returned to the heart of the mother-daughter relationship theme that her fans have loved, and yet moved into completely new ground in other ways. Here's a little more about the book.

Violet Minturn has grown up rather privileged. The daughter of the head of one of the best courtesan house in Shanghai circa 1912, she is indulged by the clients and shown deference by the women in the business. And she herself knows her place; she’s White, after all. The result is a rather high and mighty, unlikable person, and my first thought was, is this any way to start a novel? I’m not talking about any novel, but Amy Tan’s first novel in eight years.

But things are about to change. Not only is she to learn that her real father is Chinese, making her Eurasian (I’m using the term that is straight from the novel), but her mother, Lulu, is about to be tricked into leaving for the United States by her lover, leaving Violet behind and yes, Violet is sold into courtesan-ship herself. Now it’s not her Asian background, but her European origins that need to be covered up. And now she must be retrained to lose her privilege but not her self-esteem.

But Violet wants more. She wants her family. She wants her independence. And for every two steps forward, she takes another step back. OK, sometimes she seems to take three steps back. Neither having a child, nor a marriage saves her. In fact, they are just ways for her life to get more tangled. The story almost gets a little Perils of Pauline at one point, but I think Tan here was dramatizing the struggles that a woman would have had to confront in order to get to Violet’s place in life.

Is this a story about mother-daughter relationships? Yes, it is, though I wouldn’t exactly call it a chronicle of three generations. This is Violet’s story first, with mama Lulu being secondary, and daughter Flora being almost conceptual. And though Violet doesn’t have a birth sister, there’s no question that she makes some siblings along the way, most notably Magic Gourd, the courtesan who takes her and trains her, which is by the way, one of the most entertaining sections of the story. And I just want to say write now that the ending is Dickensian and I don’t want to hear any more argument about it.

Much as people think I read every book for every event, you have to understand that we host over 300 events per year and I’m lucky on a good year to read 80 books, and that’s with a number of them being for middle grade readers or otherwise being relatively quickly pace. I stuck through Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement with over 600 pages because in the end, I was hooked. I needed to find out how she’d resolve her father/daughter relationship, her true love that was not to be, and at least one very, very bad marriage. I wanted to see how much she’d really grow as a character. And of course I was fascinated by the early 20th century Shanghai setting.

Amy Tan’s been to the Milwaukee before. Not only have I worked the events, but everyone who has seen her has told me what a great speaker she is.

Reviews on the new book have been a bit polarized. Martha T. Moore in USA Today wrote “This is an Amy Tan novel, so its heart is the push-pull of mother-daughter relationships: the guilt, anger and intense love that swirls between Lulu and Violet and then between Violet and Flora, the daughter who is taken from her as a toddler. Violet wonders why her mother left her, whether her mother loved her, and whether she is more American or Chinese and which one will help her survive.”

Krys Lee in The Financial Times thought Tan did a good job of subverting clich├ęs in her story. “High quality global journalism requires investment “Just as Violet is a complex character beyond her Asian and white ethnic roots, Tan’s large-hearted, florid and ragged tale goes beyond casual stereotypes. This is one writer’s particular idiom and vision of the world – and within that she offers us a rich cast of characters who both repel and compel.”

Sue Doerfler in The Arizona Republic goes behind the story to learn a bit about the inspiration: “The idea stemmed from a photograph that Tan found of her grandmother dressed in a fur-lined jacket and intricately embroidered headband. The most striking thing was that it was taken in a Western photo studio,” she said. While at an exhibit about Shanghai at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, Tan saw a photo of women dressed the same way. Titled The 10 Beauties of Shanghai, it depicted 10 courtesans who won a popularity contest in 1910. The photo also was taken in a Western photo studio. Tan learned that only courtesans had their pictures taken in those studios. She began to wonder about her grandmother’s past.”

In The Wall Street Journal, Anna Russell documents Amy Tan's search for a new editor, after the 1999 death of the legendary Faith Sale. "There was somebody there, but nobody really sat down and read the book and said 'Here's what you should do,' " she said. "They would have given me an editor, but I just couldn't make up my mind. And I just thought, I can never replace Faith."

Yes, I know that not every reviewer has loved the book, but even Ron Charles said it wasn't boring. I think he and Krys Lee could probably have a good debate on some of the points. The big thing is that this is a major release and everyone is reviewing it. I've had to find reviews for a number of other titles, only to find nothing except bloggers (like myself) ruminating. It's fun to have a novel where everyone is weighing in.

We’re hosting Amy Tan next week at Alverno College on Monday, November 11. I hate to repeat myself, but you can buy you tickets on the Brown Paper Tickets website. There’s a $20 gift card in lieu of the book on the night of the event only. If you don't attend, you'll have a wonderful signed copy of The Valley of Amazement waiting for you to pick up at Boswell afterwards.

Please use our Facebook event page to let more folks know about the event. Or forward this blog. We’d hate for any of Amy Tan’s fans to miss this special event.

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