Author: Amy Tan
Finished reading on 7/16/17
I have now read of all of Amy Tan’s work (excepting her children’s books) and out of all of them, this one has the most intriguing plot. It’s a page turner and no mistake. I also found it to be one of the most tragic and deeply moving of all her novels. Some moments in here are just very powerful. Because more of the main characters are white American or partially white American it was easier to relate to them. For instance, Lulu’s confusion over the powerful idea of family in Chinese culture was relatable to me as I have also spent time as a very lost Westerner in a culture so very much different from my own. I also found it interesting to see more of the racial tensions between whites and Chinese in the early part of the 19th century. I didn’t realize how segregated Shanghai was because of the power Westerners had in that city. The remnants of the anti-foreigner currents that sprung up in that time I witness during my time in China. Chinese are very welcoming of foreigners but I wouldn’t call welcoming and accepting the same thing. There is still a very strong sense who the outsiders are.
The story is mainly set in the second and third decades of the 19th century in Shanghai. And as usual with Amy Tan, the central drive of the novel is the mother-daughter among 4 generations of women although mostly between the second and third generation. The main character is half Chinese. Her mother runs a very high class courtesan house in Shanghai in the 1910s. When Violet is 14 her mother is tricked into leaving Shanghai for San Francisco without Violet and Violet is sold as a virgin courtesan. Her mother believes she is dead and Violet must survive and make her way in the world on her own. Violet eventually has a daughter who at the age of 3 is also taken from her mother to live in America. Though there are a lot of romantic moments (some quiet explicit due to the nature of Violet’s forced profession) in the novel it remains a novel about mothers and daughters.
I think I walked away from this novel with a renewed sense of respect for the mother-daughter relationship. The novels shows that it takes a lot to really break the bond of love that forms between a mother and her daughter and that bond of love can be extremely powerful, surmounting obstacles that one would think otherwise impossible. I think Tan’s writing is especially poignant in our current society where the parent-child relationship is often devalued and cheapened. I find that a lot of people simple accept a strained or even estranged relationship with their parents. How sad that the power of that relationship, when it’s not being abused by either side, has been lost.