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Amy Tan spins a courtesan's tale in new novel

Amy Tan, author of "The Valley of Amazement"

Amy Tan, author of "The Valley of Amazement" (Ecco, November 2013). Credit: Rick Smolan

THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT, by Amy Tan. Ecco, 589 pp., $29.99.

The prolific and award-winning Amy Tan -- best known for her 1989 bestseller, "The Joy Luck Club" -- has delivered yet another sweeping tale of mothers and daughters that spans continents and generations. "The Valley of Amazement" begins in Shanghai in the early 1800s, introducing readers to Lucia Minturn, who owns a high-end courtesan house, and her daughter, Violet, who grows up there among the women and their customers.

Through choice -- or perhaps by accident -- Violet ends up abandoned in Shanghai while her mother sets sail for San Francisco. Left with few options, Violet reinvents herself as a wealthy and much-sought-after half-white, half-Chinese courtesan.

As Violet learns and later plies her trade, Tan brings to life a world with which few are familiar. And it's fascinating. Her descriptions of the countryside, of the houses, of the lifestyle and the customers are well drawn and multilayered. Her characters are brought to life as three-dimensional, complicated people.

The only distraction from the near-perfect pacing is the occasional overwrought language -- particularly when it comes to sex and intimacy: "We conjoined and separated, conjoined and separated, so that we could have the joy of looking into each other's eyes before falling into each other again."

Then again, the language may sound awkward only to modern ears.

Readers also may find themselves wondering throughout "The Valley of Amazement" whether they hadn't already read this book. It covers no new ground and offers no surprises, but in Tan's skilled hands, that doesn't detract from the joy of reading it.

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