Amy Tan explores lives of courtesans in ‘Valley of Amazement’ 

click to enlarge Amy Tan
  • Courtesy photo
  • Amy Tan talks about her new book “The Valley of Amazement” with Jan Yanehiro at Kepler’s on Tuesday. The 600-page book queries into her family’s history.
After a seven-year hiatus, Oakland-born author Amy Tan returns to fiction with “The Valley of Amazement,” a tome of nearly 600 pages that crosses continents and centuries.

Tan, who speaks in conversation with Jan Yanehiro at Kepler’s Books on Tuesday, remains best known for her debut novel, “The Joy Luck Club,” a story about bonds and conflicts between four Chinese mothers and their Chinese-American daughters.

Family history is also imperative to the new book, although “The Valley of Amazement” is neither historical nor autobiographical fiction.

Best classified as literary fiction, the novel is inspired by Tan’s queries into her own family history. It involved a creative U-turn when she stumbled upon a photo in a museum that resembled her own grandmother.

The woman in the photo was not her grandmother, yet Tan remembered seeing an image of her grandmother wearing the exact same clothes. Dating from 1910, the museum photo was titled “The Ten Beauties of Shanghai.” The women were courtesans who had won a beauty contest.

Tan dug into the family archives and found more images of her grandmother wearing fashion-forward clothes and striking certain poses. She consulted academics and historians and found out that the photos were most likely taken in Western photography studios in Shanghai, which were wildly popular with courtesans.

Although Tan’s grandmother did not share their career, “Courtesans were like today’s rock stars,” Tan says. Her grandmother’s youthful embrace of the same cutting-edge style contrasts sharply with her reputation in the Tan family books, which described her as a stodgy traditionalist.

Tan’s curiosity and research evolved into a new book and a new character. “The Valley of Amazement” chronicles the life of Violet Minturn, a half-Chinese, half-American girl, who, through a tragic series of events, turns to high-end prostitution to make her way in the world.

Violet’s mother, Lucia, faces her own battles after she moves from San Francisco to China — a decision based on teenage passion and infatuation.

In a charming video on her website, Tan admits there is sex in the book: “There is a lot of sex, but that’s because it takes place in a courtesan house, you know, they didn’t play pingpong or anything.”

She also doesn’t want the book to be reduced to the mother-daughter saga category. Violet’s and Lucia’s narratives may be linked by heredity but remain individual to the characters.

As Tan says in the video, the book is “really about identity.”


Amy Tan

With Jan Yanehiro

Where: Kepler’s Books, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Tickets: $25 to $50

Contact: (650) 324-4321,

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Lauren Gallagher

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