REVIEW: Mother-daughter struggles shape Amy Tan's novel
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.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Foreign influx in Allegheny County at ‘tipping point’
- Steelers hope group of low-budget cornerbacks can deliver
- Blessings in a Backpack to help feed Verner Elementary students
- McKeesport home invasion sends people to hospital
- Adams couple faces fight in quest to drill on land near Mars schools
- Squirrel Hill Tunnel workers cope with speeders, exhaust fumes
- Area girl celebrates her Quinceanera
- Construction of $500M power plant in South Huntingdon stalled
- Local golf notebook: Fox Chapel graduate to play in Junior PGA event
- Observers mixed on grid backup amid carbon rules, natural gas uncertainty
- Kittanning considers restricting dock access