“Maybe the kind of love that would comfort me did not exist. Perhaps I expected too much of love and no one existed who could meet my unceasing and bottomless need for it.”
Violet Minturn grows up in a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai’s International Settlement, run by her enterprising American mother, Lulu, and her Chinese business partner, Golden Dove. As a young child, Violet has no sense of herself as biracial, but as she grows up, she begins to recognize the privileges of her American blood, and has difficulty coming to terms with her Chinese half. Betrayed and sold into slavery, Violet becomes a courtesan herself, struggling to understand her deep-seated need find true love in an industry that treats it like a commodity. Her attendant, Magic Gourd, one of her mother’s former courtesans, prepares Violet to make her debut into a world where most beauties have only ten short years to make their fortune, gathering the jewelry, furniture, and stipends that will allow them a comfortable retirement. Unable to forgive her mother for allowing her to meet this fate, Violet nevertheless finds herself following in Lulu’s footsteps when she falls in love with an American, and gives birth to her own daughter, Flora. Proud, independent, and fallible, the Minturn women struggle to find their place at the confluence of East and West.
Although Violet is the primary narrator of The Valley of Amazement, Magic Gourd and Lulu also have their turns. Chapter 4, “Etiquette for the Boudoir” takes Tan’s short story, “Rules for Virgins”, almost word-for-word, as Magic Gourd tries to impart her wisdom and experience to Violet. In my review of “Rules for Virgins”, I wrote that there was “a fuller story to be told here about the relationship between an attendant and her new courtesan,” one that included both their voices. And indeed, the relationship between Violet and Magic Gourd proves to be one of the most enduring and intriguing aspects of Violet’s story. Magic Gourd emerges as a mother-surrogate figure who is always there when Violet’s actual mother has abandoned her for dead. Where Lulu keeps her secrets close, and offers Violet no opportunity to learn from her mistakes, Magic Gourd lays herself bare as she tries to help Violet navigate around the pitfalls that ensnared her as a young courtesan. Magic Gourd’s voice is unique, and provides a humourous touch that Violet’s own narration lacks. But when the story is turned over to Lulu, her voice is indistinguishable from Violet’s. Perhaps this is by design to highlight the similarities between their lives, but by time Tan turns the story over to her late in the book, it simply feels like a sad and tiresome rehash of the same tragedies.
Violet’s childhood and subsequent career are an intriguing exposition of Tan’s meticulous research into the lives of courtesans in turn-of-the-century Shanghai, which was inspired by the discovery that her own grandmother may have been a courtesan. The historical detail is largely limited to the world of courtesans, but outside events affect the course of the story; the fall of the Ching dynasty in 1912 is the trigger that changes Violet’s fortune, and the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic plays a pivotal role. Otherwise the outside world seems oddly distant and irrelevant within the confines of the story, as if the courtesans inhabit a world of their own. Tan is at her best in the early parts of the novel, effortlessly weaving historical detail into Violet’s guileless explorations of Hidden Jade Path. But soon Violet’s life becomes a relentless parade of tragedy, dealing one exhausting blow after another. The reader will foresee each forthcoming tragedy long before it transpires, until actually reading each successive violation becomes a tiresome act of self-flagellation.
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