It has been several years since I last read an Amy Tan novel. But, if my memory serves me correctly, I enjoyed her earlier work more than this book.
The book tells the story of Violet, a half American, half Chinese girl living in Shanghai at the beginning of the twentieth century. Her mother, Lulu or Lucia, is the madam at a high end courtesan house in the city. She runs it with her best friend, a Chinese former courtesan named Golden Dove. Violet is a pampered girl who spies on the courtesans and their customers in between private lessons from a series of tutors. But she is not completely happy as she craves attention from her mother and wants to know more about the father that abandoned them when she was an infant. She learns, to her chagrin, that he was a Chinese painter who would not break from family tradition to marry the American girl he fell in love with and impregnated.
At 14 Lulu is swindled into travelling to America to reclaim the infant son that was taken from her by his father and Violet is sold to another courtesan house. Her mother is then told she died. Much of the book deals with Violet's life as a courtesan, her relationship with her attendant and surrogate mother, Magic Gourd and the various men in her life, including the man she marries and has a child with. This child is taken from her when she is 3 1/2 after her American "husband" dies of influenza. Over the years she develops more sympathy for her mother when she sees what happened to her from a mother's perspective - and she seeks her out and gets her help locating her daughter.
The mother-daughter relationships in this book are very interesting, as are some of the relationships with men. I also liked the surrogate family relationships with Golden Dove, Magic Gourd and a gay American man who married Violet's mother and gave her legitimacy and an American passport.
But I also felt Tan tried too hard to fit too many stories into the book. For example, Violet's second disastrous marriage to an abusive man who sets her up in his family's home in the countryside was at best a distraction. I had trouble getting through that part.
All in all it was a good book but not a great one.