In In the Company of the Courtesan, novelist Sarah Dunant created an enterprising Italian courtesan and her business partner in 16th century Venice. Amy Tan sets her hefty novel of an elaborate courtesan culture, The Valley of Amazement, in early 20th century China. In these fictional worlds, economic security is precarious, and women adopt and manipulate subservient roles to gain power.
By JEFFREY ANN GOUDIE
Special to The Star
Tans first novel in eight years opens in Shanghai in 1905. Violet, the first-person narrator, pronounces: 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.
Violet knows only half the story. In truth, her father is a Chinese artist who paints imitations of originals. Lulu was Lucia when she met Lu Shing, then an apprentice of American landscape painters. Her backstory is shoehorned into the last 156 pages of this novel.
Lucias parents are San Francisco freethinkers: her father an art history scholar with a collection of fetishistic objects, her mother the daughter of a botanical artist who is herself an entomologist. They host salons and barely notice the daughter they named after Lucretia Mott and call Lucia for short.
Lucia and Lu Shing begin a relationship in the turret room of Lucias family home. When Lucia becomes pregnant, Lu Shing confesses he is betrothed to a woman in China. Convinced she can overcome Chinese custom with American pluck, Lucia boards a ship for Shanghai.
Once there, Lu Shing caves to family pressure and boards the pregnant Lucia with an American friend, Philo Danner, an art dealer with a house in the citys International Settlement. She gives birth to Violet, who captures her heart but does not win her entry into Lu Shings family. Soon they have a boy she names Teddy, in honor of Danners dead partner.
Lu Shing takes the baby boy to his parents, hoping to win their approval, convincing Lucia this is her best chance to insinuate herself into the family as Second Wife. But the grandparents keep the boy, and Teddy becomes Lu Shen, heir to the family fortune, lost to Lucia.
When Danner unexpectedly dies, he leaves Lucia the house. He also leaves Golden Dove, a former courtesan and current boarder, the bank account containing her accumulated rent. Lucia and Golden Dove become a dynamic business duo, turning Danners house into a pub. They start a string of businesses and shortly open a first-class courtesan house called the House of Lulu Mimi in Chinese. Violet, the pampered daughter, garners an unsentimental education into the commerce of sex while eavesdropping on her savvy mothers business dealings.
Lulu does not entertain customers or lovers, except for the charming American Fairweather. On Violets 14th birthday the Ching dynasty falls, and the Republic of China is born. Lu Shing arrives at the house to say his father has died, informing Lulu their son is in San Francisco.
Lulu packs for California. Fairweather takes Violet and the luggage, promising to rendezvous with Lulu on the ship. Instead, he kidnaps Violet, just as Lu Shings parents kidnapped Teddy. Violet has been sold as a 14-year-old virgin courtesan to the Hall of Tranquility, where things are anything but tranquil.
Just as Golden Dove has been indispensable to the success and survival of Lulu, courtesan Magic Gourd, the former Magic Cloud from her mothers house, becomes Violets teacher and protector.
Violets defloration occurs on her 15th birthday, on the year anniversary of the abdication of the emperor. Her first patron, Loyalty Fang, purchases her services for one year, which is cut short by mutual squabbling. Violet wants love; Loyalty wants freedom.
She transforms from dewy-eyed innocent to dry-eyed veteran, following the intricate rules and rituals of the courtesan house. She is unexpectedly befriended by an American, Edward Ivory, in Shanghai to learn his familys business.
They have a baby, Flora. When Edward dies from the Spanish flu, Violet is left with her baby and her protector, Magic Gourd. Violet takes on the mantle of Mrs. Ivory. When the real Mrs. Ivory shows up, Flora is plucked away, just as Violet had earlier been taken from Lulu. Children in this novel are commodities, appropriated for adult purposes.
Now a childless common-law widow, Violet returns to the House of Tranquility, renamed the House of Vermillion. But the vagaries of fate are not finished with her. She and Magic Gourd travel 300 miles to rural Moon Pond Village, where she is to become First Wife to a scholar named Perpetual, a perpetual liar. She is relegated to Third Wife of the remote north wing.
Violets life goes from bad to worse before it becomes better: Ultimately, this half-Chinese, half-American girl, this former courtesan, this mother, finally learns who she is.
The Valley of Amazement succeeds in its parts better than in its whole. Tan is a bit too fond of her own research into courtesan culture. Some parts sag, particularly the lengthy section where Magic Gourd advises Violet on strategies for becoming a successful courtesan. A bit of editorial excision would have yielded a shapelier novel.
But given the complexities of courtesan culture, and the cultural changes in China from 1905-1939, Tan has many strands to weave. An interesting mix of the formal and the graphic, The Valley of Amazement is thickly plotted and as detailed as the protocol of courtesan culture.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance writer living in Topeka.