EVER since “The Joy Luck Club” burst onto the literary scene in 1989, Amy Tan’s name has been synonymous with Asian literature. Even though many other authors such as Anchee Min and Lisa See have also found massive audiences, success in the Asian literature market wouldn’t have been possible without Tan.
Tan is possibly the only Asian writer in the English market who is a household name. Her newest book, “The Valley of Amazement,” is a great example of why Tan’s writing is so relatable and has such staying power in the Western market.
In November of last year, “The Valley of Amazement” debuted at No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list. It spent 12 weeks on the list before finally falling off in March. It still ranks No. 8 in the Asian-American book category on Amazon. It received rave reviews from The New York Times, the LA Times, and fellow authors such as Alice Walker and Louise Erdrich. After waiting eight years, fans and readers were eagerly awaiting Tan’s latest work (even I bought a signed first edition and read it within days of the release).
“The Valley of Amazement,” like Tan’s previous works, transcends racial and cultural boundaries with the universal topics of love and family. She demystifies the mystical with her plain language and realistic characters. In “The Joy Luck Club,” Tan opened a window to the modern Asian-American family. They were not portrayed as “the other,” this was not a piece of Orientalism, but a real view into the daily struggles of an Asian-American family.
Western readers were enthralled in this story, not out of voyeurism to peek into the life of strange and incomprehensible people, but because of how typical they were. The laws of family love, duty, and honor applied to all American families; the way they fulfilled those laws differed, but the laws were the same.
In “The Valley of Amazement,” Tan deals with the issues of mothers and daughters, the most tense and complex of relationships. Even though most of the book is from the perspective of Violet Minturn, the half-American and half-Chinese daughter of an American brothel madam, readers know there is more to the story.
Violet is a classic unreliable narrator, wallowing in her own fears and uncertainty and blaming her mother for everything that goes wrong in her life. What daughter can’t relate to that? What is amazing, though, is that in spite of (or because of) Violet’s constant diatribes against her mother, readers sympathize with the mother. Every turn of the page becomes a question of “when will I find out what happened to Lucia?” No matter how selfish and thoughtless Lucia might appear, readers know that no mother would consciously put her child through the horrors Violet faces. Readers strive to understand the “villain,” Lucia.
This is why Tan is a master author. After readingthe book and learning to understand and sympathize with the mother, readers should come away with more compassion for their own mothers. It is impossible to read this book and not use it to examine your own life and look at your mother from a new perspective.
“The Valley of Amazement” is Tan at her best. Eight years was worth the wait.