Tan, who made her name with The Joy Luck Club (1989), blends two favorite settings, Shanghai and San Francisco, in a tale that spans generations.
Granted that courtesans and the places that sheltered them were (and in some places still are) culturally significant in East Asia, Tan takes what might seem an unnecessary risk by setting her latest novel in that too-familiar demimonde (Miss Saigon, Memoirs of a Geisha, etc.). Tan is a skilled storyteller, capable of working her way into and out of most fictional problems, but the reader will be forgiven a sinking feeling at the scenario with which she opens, featuring “the only white woman who owned a first-class courtesan house in Shanghai.” Where are the Boxers when you need them? Said white woman, Lulu Minturn, aka Lulu Mimi, is in Shanghai for a reason—and on that reason hinges a larger conceit, the one embodied by the book’s title. She has a daughter, and the daughter, naturally enough, has cause to wonder about her ancestry, if little time to worry overmuch about some of the details, since her mom leaves her to fend for herself, not entirely willingly. The chinoiserie and exoticism aside, Violet makes a tough and compelling character, a sort of female equivalent to Yul Brynner as played by Lucy Liu. The members of the “Cloud Beauties,” who give Violet her sentimental education, make an interesting lot themselves, but most of the attention is on Violet and the narrative track that finds her on a parallel journey, literally and figuratively, always haunted by “those damned paintings that had belonged to my mother” and that will eventually reveal their secrets. Tan’s story sometimes suffers from longueurs, but the occasional breathless, steamy scene evens the score: “He lifted my hips and my head soared and I lost all my senses except for the one that bound us and could not be pulled apart.”
A satisfyingly complete, expertly paced yarn.