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REVIEW: Mother-daughter struggles shape Amy Tan's novel

| Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

There's a surprise at the start of Amy Tan's new novel: the difficult mother — whose withheld affection shapes the protagonist's life — is not Chinese. Clever, strong-willed, tempestuous Lulu Mintern is white, raised in San Francisco before the turn of the 20th century. Second surprise: the story of Lulu's Chinese-American daughter, Violet, unfolds in Shanghai. The immigrant experience in this novel goes the other way.

Inspired by what she has conjectured about her grandmother's life, Tan (“The Joy Luck Club”) has centered a decades-long family saga on the complex and closed world of Shanghai's “flower houses,” where courtesans entertain gentlemen customers.

Violet (Tan's imagined grandmother) is born into the flower world: Lulu, as a pregnant 16-year-old, followed her Chinese lover to Shanghai. There, she becomes the successful proprietor of “a first-class courtesan house,” in the proud words of young Violet, who narrates most of the story.

Violet grows up privileged and neglected. After a terrible misadventure, she finds herself separated from her mother and at work in another, lesser flower house.

In the flower house, Violet creates the illusion of perfection. In reality, there are awful mistakes, betrayals, lies and violence, and sex that is far from erotic (perhaps appropriately for a book about the sex trade). Even Violet's much-loved first husband reveals a dreadful secret that Violet must contend with.

This is an Amy Tan novel, so its heart is the push-pull of mother-daughter relationships: the guilt, anger and intense love that swirls between Lulu and Violet and then between Violet and Flora, the daughter who is taken from her as a toddler. Violet wonders why her mother left her, whether her mother loved her, and whether she is more American or Chinese and which one will help her survive.

Violet finds a reflection of the ambivalence and uncertainty of her life in a painting of a valley beneath cloud-filled skies, a painting that returns like a talisman throughout the book. “At the far end of the valley, an opening between two mountains glowed like the entrance to paradise. It looks like dawn. Or was it dusk? I could not tell whether the rain was coming or the sky was clearing, whether it was about arriving there with joy or leaving it with relief.”

The journey with Violet, her mother and her daughter is one of separate winding paths, each woman struggling to reach the light.

Martha T. Moore is a staff writer for USA Today.

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