A dedicated Amy Tan fan since her debut novel (which, though it was published a year before I was born, I revisit every year), I traveled to the Valley of Amazement already spellbound, anticipating the same sentiments that Joy Luck delivered.
I was disappointed. At the risk of publicizing my oversentimentality, I also felt betrayed. I pre-ordered the novel and waited patiently, checking my mailbox every afternoon. And though I could only read a few pages a day because of my graduate program, I kept thinking - hoping, certainly - the story would pick up, a redeeming epiphany would alter the book's tone, something would make the characters more likable, more human, more compassionate. I waited for the language to become less tedious, the grimy details of Shanghai less depressing, the flower/sex references less tacky. Like the patrons of these courtesan houses, I spent the whole novel waiting at the cusp of this valley and searching for what I desired most. But I never found it. Just like the patrons, I found illusions, cheap embellishments, shoddy furniture, and cheap, cheap, cheap sex.
At Tan's defense, I get it. Sex sells. "Fifty Shades" is a testament to that, among so many other empty "pieces of literature" that will never stand in the same light as the classics, the unrecognized talents, the Nobel Laureates, the Pulitzer Prize winners. True literary minds, true English enthusiasts, scoff at works like these - they shame us, embarrass us. To use Tan's own terminology, good literature - true, honest literature - is like a first wife. And cheap, repetitive sex scenes, empty characters, and stale plot - these are all slave girls. I am sad to admit that I finally saw the day I'd scoff at an author I idolized and admired most. I have placed the valued Tan on a pedestal since I was teenager, and "The Valley of Amazement" tore down her pristine standard. I never imagined I'd want to STOP reading Tan. But I spent nights with this book dreading reading and re-reading tedious, silly passages that told me nothing of the characters at all, just courtesan rules, dry dialogue, and repeated questions from the protagonist that essentially answered themselves. Again, as Tan would put it: "I didn't understand. Why was the book so bad? Had I been duped?"
Some reviewers say they enjoyed the book because of its historical context, its realistic and sometimes shockingly honest portrayal of Shanghai in a time of revolution and change, and I understand this and agree with it. To Tan's credit, the book does provide a rich history and vivid backdrop to the characters' lives (although a few details did make me lose my stomach, the girl really did her research). The characters themselves, however, were as flaccid as an old patron's "stem." They were essentially faceless. Violet is a spoiled brat who has to learn about life the hard way, her mother is hard-hearted for having endured atrocities, Fairweather is a slimy con man. The patrons vary, but according to Magic Gourd, they will all enjoy more or less the same behaviors in bed, and there are rules to get them there that will never fail. I could never make a simple list like this for "Joy Luck Club" or "Bonesetter's Daughter." What gave Tan appeal above all else was honesty. Good, honest characters. Characters that you can't forget easily, that haunt you to come back and reread. I am upset to report that I finished Tan's latest book an hour ago and I feel like I've already forgotten the lot of these contrived personas already. I was happy to press cover to cover and call it a day.
Amy Tan was the first author to inspire me. I never thought a female artist of color could gain so much success by telling our stories - immigrant, minority, mother/daughter stories. American stories. Chinese stories. I was enchanted, and for this reason, I will always be grateful for Tan - I will always love her and admire her as an artist. It is not my place to say if the book was good or bad, only that I disliked it for all of the reasons I've mentioned already. Tan, you are BETTER than this! You don't need cheap sex to sell. I would have fawned over a more thoughtful story with rich, diverse characters, multifaceted symbolism, and meaningful relationships with less of the historical research monologues. I almost feel like Tan sold her body herself with this book.
I understand that artists experience varying phases in their careers. Tan is at a different place in life now than she was in 1989. She was inspired to write this, to tell these courtesans' stories, to shed some light on Shanghai during the 20s. I applaud her for her efforts, but frankly I think the book is a waste of time and money if you are seeking a read like "Joy Luck." This valley really will amaze you, but perhaps not the way you expect. But who knows? Maybe it will bring a new crowd of fans to her readership, who will pick up "Joy Luck" expecting something like "Valley," and thus, be disappointed! Different strokes for different folks. I only hope that Tan returns to her roots for her next piece. There is a reason her debut novel was so successful; if I were in her shoes, I'd take that fact to heart and build from it.