The Valley of Amazement is a novel of two halves: the first, written from the point of view of Violet, the abandoned daughter of a courtesan house owner mother who abruptly leaves Shanghai to fly to San Francisco where she is able at last to meet the son she has not seen since he was born. Violet, kidnapped, sold to a Chinese crime syndicate and forced to work as a courtesan in another establishment, leads a tragic existence but by the end of the novel has been reunited with her mother, her own daughter and her feelings of hope.
The second half of the book is written from the perspective of Violet's mother, living in San Francisco and looking back over her life. Believing Violet to be dead, she is astonished and delighted to discover that her daughter is very much alive. As in many of Amy Tan's novels, the main theme of the plot line is the tumultuous relationship between mother and daughter, a theme that underpins this novel and a theme she returns to over and over again in her writing. Another frequent theme is the unique struggles of Chinese American women and the experiences they have whilst trying to assimilate into their new society. Part of this novel was republished separately under the title "Rules for Virgins"
Although Tan is a much-heralded author with several major literary honors to her name, her work has also garnered criticism from Chinese cultural sources because it paints a negative picture of Chinese culture and particularly its patriarchal nature which seems to allow Chinese men to buy, sell and abuse women as much as they want to with little or no fear of punishment. Critics point to this negativity as the reason for the popularity of Tan's books in the West, claiming that perpetuating a stereotypical image of an historical Chinese society is almost guaranteed to make a best-seller. Tan is best known for her novel The Joy Luck Club, which was adapted for both big and small screens, earning a BAFTA Award for best screenplay.