The Valley of AmazementThe Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
Published by Ecco

Violet is a young girl in Shanghai at the turn of the century and her mother, Lucia, owns one of the most famous and elegant courtesan houses in the city. Violet grows up in this life, and when a shocking turn of fate causes her mother to abandon her, Violet becomes a courtesan herself at the young age of twelve. This novel is Violet’s story, how fate and choices intermix to create a life she never would have wanted for herself but learned to love anyway, but it’s also Lucia’s story. Lucia, who made the bold choice to leave her parents in San Francisco and move to Shanghai, have a half-Chinese daughter and raise her in a courtesan house, and dealt with many tragedies along the way.

What I liked about The Valley of Amazement was the beginning – getting to know Violet and Lucia, trying to understand their complex relationship and learning about what life was like for courtesans in Shanghai at that time in history. I also liked the ending – after one bad decision after another led to tragedy upon tragedy, things ended in a way that I was happy about. But here’s what I didn’t like – almost everything else. This book was just SO LONG. Also, I think I am not a fan of Tan’s writing. To me, she over-writes – everything is SO descriptive, so lush, so flowery, it’s just too much for me. That’s my personal opinion, obviously, and a lot of people love her. I just happen not to be one of them.

If you like her books, I’m sure you’ll enjoy this one. If you like long drawn-out stories of people making terrible decisions and those choices having dire consequences, you’ll like this one. If you have my taste in books, you’ll probably be annoyed for most of it, as I was.

Dept. of SpeculationDept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Published by Knopf

The characters in this story do not have names – the heroine is called “the wife” and she writes about her husband and child without using their names. This is basically the story of a marriage going down in flames, and the wife is about to have an emotional breakdown because of that and because of so many other things in her life. She’s not entirely happy in her roles as wife and mother, not feeling successful at her writing career – struggling to finish her second book – and things in general are just going wrong. It’s an emotional novel, but also the author keeps you at arm’s length, so you’re able to see from a distance where this thing is headed.

I don’t know. People have loved this book, found so much truth, so many hidden gems within its pages, and I am not sure I get it. I liked it, and could relate to a lot of it – I’m of course not perfect, my marriage is not perfect, and I struggle every day with wanting to be even more successful in my career than I am at this point – but I didn’t fall in love with the book. It was a quick read, interesting, different from my usual fare, but in the end it wasn’t all that memorable.