“When I was seven, I knew exactly who I was: a thoroughly American girl in race, manners, and speech, whose mother, Lulu Minturn, was the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai.”
So begins Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement, a novel about young Violet Minturn, her mother Lulu, and their separate struggles towards awareness and preservation of self. At seven years old, Violet may have known who she was but she quickly lost sight of this important self-identity, when she was tricked into becoming a fourteen-year-old courtesan in Shanghai, separated from a mother who believed her dead. She struggles into adulthood as a young courtesan, courted, wooed, paid, and subsequently discarded by an array of suitors. Her story is not unlike that of her mother, Lulu, told during the second half of the novel. Lulu faces her share of heartbreak and attacks to her all-important “self,” ultimately making her own way in Shanghai with only her daughter and her wits.
This novel is a beautifully written work about the mysterious and glamorous world of Shanghai courtesans in the early 20th century. Tan captures the contradictory nature of life in a first-class courtesan house: gifts received for favors given, heartfelt declarations of love followed by payment, the abrupt end of passion at the end of a season or the breaking of a heart.
But beyond the glamour, the jewels, and the parties remain Violet and Lulu. Two girls, and later women, struggling with identity in circumstances that offer few choices. At its heart, this novel is about mothers and daughters, their perceptions of each other and themselves. Lulu, intent on creating her own life, separate from parents that she believes don’t understand her, crosses oceans in pursuit of this life. Though not initially separated by choice, Violet later decides not to correct her mother’s belief that she did die in an accident. Both women believe that in order to maintain their sense of self, they must separate themselves from their past. In the struggle for self-awareness, often the ones that already know our true selves- our mothers or fathers- are necessarily left behind as we struggle to learn what they already know. But just as Violet and Lulu, we all eventually return to those who first taught us about ourselves, against whom all others are measured.
This is one to read between mothers and daughters (although you may have trouble trying not to blush at the juicier depictions of life in a courtesan house). Here are few discussion questions to get you started.
- Lulu and Violet both make decisions based on their relationship with their mothers. How do you think that their lives may have been different if they had made different decisions? Were their fates out of their control?
- Why do you think that Lulu and Violet had such a hard time forgiving their mothers? Do you think that their mothers deserved forgiveness?
- Do you think that Lulu’s love of Lu Shing was influenced by her perception of herself? What about her relationship with Danner?
- What do you think that Lulu saw of herself in Lu Shing’s painting, The Valley of Amazement? What did Violet see when she looked at the painting?
- Both Lulu and Violet are separated from their daughters for most of their lives. How does this impact them and their sense of self?
Visit Amy Tan’s website for more insight into The Valley of Amazement, as well as her own family history that influenced the book.