Amy Tan’s latest offering is both similar to her previous books, and yet startlingly different. While it possesses the richness of description and the multi-generational depth and breadth we’ve come to associate with Tan, prudish readers may be shocked by the sexual details of the main character’s experiences, and the tone is somehow different from Tan’s previous books, as if her decision to speak from the voice of a mixed-race character has caused her to write in a slightly different language. Nonetheless, it is a tour de force of characterization and setting, as well as Tan’s forte, exploring the complex inner lives of women struggling to comprehend their ambiguous relationships with their mothers and daughters.
Violet Minturn Danner is the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese man and a white American woman who came to Shanghai at the turn of the 20th century to chase after love, and remained in order to chase after money. Raised as her mother’s ignored pet in the only bi-cultural courtesan house in Shanghai, Violet is convinced that her mother loves everyone else more than her. When her mother abandons her, forcing her to become a courtesan in another house, her worst fears seem justified. What follows is an often-harrowing account of Violet’s rise and fall as a sought-after courtesan, before the truth between mother and daughter finally comes out many years later.
The book begins slowly, setting up the inevitable tragedy of its plot: that both women will, in their insatiability for a love they believe their families and lovers have denied them, drive away those who do love them while falling for the lies of those who don’t. We see the childish Violet’s outrage and scorn as her mother allows an untrustworthy lover to trick her into giving up Violet, and feel the same outrage as, a decade later, a desperate Violet allows a similar trick to be played on her. Both women have to learn to temper their demands for the love they believe they are due before they can actually receive the love that is being offered to them; once they are able to do so, they are able to be reconciled and bring their broken family together.
That description may sound dense, and the book IS dense, but in a good way, that of a book that demands to be savored rather than rushed through. Along with the main plot arc there are multiple sub-plots involving everything from the arts and intrigues of the courtesan houses, to Shanghai’s rapidly changing situation as it is caught up in the historical events of the early 20th century, to a nail-biting flight by the main characters up a mountain footpath with an enraged and violent lover in close pursuit. This is by no means a quick or easy read, but those looking to immerse themselves in the world of pre-WWII Shanghai, or savor Tan’s explorations of complex and contradictory family relations and cultural miscommunications, should find it a more than worthwhile read.
You can get a copy here.