Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- Amy Tan did extensive research on courtesan culture in Shanghai during the turn of the twentieth century, making The Valley of Amazement her most extensively researched book by far. Do you feel like the book effectively transported you to that world? If so, what details were the most helpful? If not, what was lacking or felt anachronistic to you?
- Amy Tan describes the sexual acts of the courtesans and their clients in unflinching detail. Do you feel that the level of detail in these scenes helps to deepen the portrayals of the courtesans? Do the descriptions of the more quotidian aspects of their lives do as much to develop their characters as do the frank depictions of their sexual acts?
- Though there are complex power dynamics in the relationship between a courtesan and her client, the relationship involves an exchange of sex for money. Did you struggle with the fact that Violet ends up marrying the man who was her first client, and paid to take her virginity as a young courtesan?
- The Valley of Amazement is a multigenerational family saga. Unlike a traditional narrative, however, the novel doesn't start at the beginning of its 'story.' Most markedly, Amy Tan withholds the story of Lucia's teenage years in San Francisco until the end of the novel. Why do you think Tan decided to save the backstory for the end? Did this change your perception of Lucia, and if so, how?
- Amy Tan has said she was inspired to write this novel after encountering a photograph of women in full courtesan dress, and recognizing the outfit from her favorite photograph of her grandmother. She wondered if her grandmother had been a courtesan in Shanghai, and had kept it a secret from her family. Family secrets are at the heart of The Valley of Amazementof all the secrets the various characters keep, which do you feel ends up having the deepest impact on the lives of the characters?
- Magic Gourd is the only other character besides Violet and Lucia who has a chapter in her own voice (Chapter 4; Etiquette for Beauties of the Boudoir). Does having access to Magic Gourd's voice give us insight or perspective that we might otherwise lack? How do you think Magic Gourd perceives her role in Violet's life, and how does this role change throughout the course of the novel?
- Perpetual presents himself as a scholar and poet from a wealthy family. Yet when Violet arrives in Moon Pond Village to live with Perpetual, she discovers that not only are all of these things fabrications, but Perpetual is both physically and emotionally abusive. Given that Violet has shown herself to be savvy and intelligent from an early age, what do you think might account for her clouded judgment when it came to her marriage to Perpetual?
- All of Amy Tan's novels deal, in some way, with a mother-daughter dynamic. At the heart of The Valley of Amazement is the relationship between Violet and her mother Lucia. What parallels do you see between Violet and Lucia's lives, and what differences do you notice, both in their personalities and the opportunities they have? How does each woman express her identity against the constraints of her particular situationfor example, Lucia's decision to leave San Francisco against the wishes of her parents, compared to Violet's unwitting and unwilling reinvention as a virgin courtesan?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Ecco.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.