“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.”
And with this intro set in 1905, Amy Tan introduces us to Violet. Light skinned, spoilt and perhaps a bit entitled, Violet spends her childhood homeschooled in her mom’s courtesan house, after she gets into a fight in school with another girl who accuses her of being a “Chinee”. Violet has never met her father and deduces that he was indeed American like her mom, if by the mere fact only that she had fair skin, brown hair, green eyes and wore Western clothing and regular shoes. It seems implausible that she could have Chinese blood in her, because she had not had her feet crushed and wedged like dumpling dough into a tiny shoe; plus she was educated in difficult subjects like history and science. Her tutor said to her “most Chinese girls learned only how to behave”.
She does not want to be Chinese and thinks of herself as having Yankee ingenuity and an independent mind. With Carlotta, her golden fox cat, Violet affirms a feeling unlike any other – not even her mother. Violet is an observant child, spying on other courtesans and picking up business acumen from her mother, traits unbeknownst to her at the time would prove crucial to her survival later in life.
When Violet finds out that she is half-Chinese and the daughter of a painter, she is torn. Her relationship with her mother hits yet another curve ball, and she continues to fester negativity towards her, as well as, her father. At this point of the book we begin to understand the origin of the title of the book: The Valley of Amazement.
When Violet is fourteen, she suddenly finds herself alone, abandoned and forced into a lifestyle she never ever imagined. This is her first transformation. Throughout the reset of the book, she goes through several other transformations. Sometimes it feels like Violet is constantly in a vortex of destruction, as she seems to go from one tragedy to another, making decisions that make you raise your eyebrows. Where has that feisty seven-year old girl gone? Her transformation into a woman who seems to accept her circumstances (without explanation) baffled me. I wanted her to scream, shout, kick and cry, refusing to accept her circumstances. I would have liked Amy Tan to develop her character a bit more to help understand the emotional entanglement that surrounds her circumstances. Why does she accept her transformation into a courtesan? Why does she accept Flora being torn from her life? Why does she marry a man who treats her so poorly and why did she take so long to leave him?
Amy Tan can spin a good yarn and weave it into something memorable -- famous for depicting the mother-daughter relationship in The Joy Luck Club -- unfortunately in The Valley of Entanglement she has tried to focus on the story to the detriment of her readers connecting with the characters as the book progresses. We realize that the little girl we knew and grew attached to, no longer exists. The grown up Violet doesn’t seem to be the fighter that we observed in the earlier narrative; inexplicably, her actions sometimes didn't match up to the girl we thought we knew. But perhaps that’s what Amy Tan meant to do. After all, didn’t she begin the book with these words, “When I was seven, I knew exactly who I was.” Identity is a person's expression of not only their individuality but also of where they fit in: their affiliation be it in terms of ethnicity, nationality or culture. Was this Amy Tan's subtle exposition of how identity transforms, mutates and wither’s under duress?
Overall, Amy Tan tells a good story, trying to tie up all the loose ends into a nice neat bow. We finally understand what drives Lulu Minturn, Violet’s mother. The storyline about courtesan life is intriguing, the chapter on Etiquette for Beauties of The Boudoir, and the book well researched to the point of almost reading like a textbook. For those diving into the world of becoming a popular courtesan while avoiding cheapskates, false love, and suicide, there is a melancholy as Violet succumbs to two of those lessons.