Fiction can be much more than entertainment. A good book can also serve as a mirror to one’s life, through which to see more clearly, question, and better understand. I insist on having a good book on hand everywhere I go, not only because of my love for paper and ink adventures, but also for those moments of self-insight.
I started reading Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement a few months back. I picked it up because it had been a gift from my sister — who used to give IOU’s instead of presents on Christmas. Yet I couldn’t get into it and I’m ashamed to say that I resorted to skimming through some of the longer passages. But I’m not the type to give up on a book that both my scholarly sister and reporter mother told me they’d loved. So I continued to struggle through for about a month, until I finally came across a passage that hit home.
Towards the end, one injured, unlucky woman tells the main character, Violet, “I knew the feeling of being betrayed by lies you had believed in. It was like a crack in the wall behind you that widened without your knowing it until the entire house collapsed on top of you” (p.533).
I sat back, finally amazed by The Valley of Amazement. Those words struck right to the heart of what I was going through in my own life.
Betrayal. Many have felt it. Everybody knows it. The source of betrayal may be different for everyone, but the feeling is the same. It was the shock in Caesar’s eyes after he was stabbed repeatedly by his trusted allies and breathed, “Et tu, Brutae?” It’s how you feel after you build a big, strong, beautiful house, only to have your best friend remove the keystone. It’s the feeling of that house collapsing on top of you.
A month ago, I found myself in that place, surrounded by dust and rubble, side stabbed and bleeding, heartbroken at the death of the future I had once believed in. Since then, I’ve been faced with the prospect of “what now?”
There’s nothing more difficult than getting over betrayal. The key is letting go. You can’t be eaten up by bitterness for the rest of your life because it will stop you from moving on and finding joy again. But how to let go when you’re still fuming with rage and leaning closer to revenge than forgiveness?
The path forward – as I have discovered time and time again – can often lie in reading a good book. After a 589-page, month-long journey, I finally finished The Valley of Amazement. First, it made me cry. Then it made me think. I realized that it had been more than a worthwhile read because the tangled up story within had helped me gain some insight into my own life in the aftermath of betrayal.
The Valley of Amazement tells the story of Violet Minturn, an American girl born in Shanghai around the turn of the twentieth century. When the book begins, Violet is a rich, spoiled, and arrogant child. But her life flips over when, instead of boarding the ship she was supposed to take to America, she is kidnapped, sold as a courtesan, and forced to adapt to a new, unexpected and revolting way of life.
Violet is guided by the older character, Magic Gourd, who serves as the voice of wisdom and reason throughout the book. During Violet’s early days as a courtesan, she is still furious over what she believes was her mother’s betrayal. Seeing that Violet cannot accept her new position in life and believing that she can still return to the old, Magic Gourd tells her, “To have false hopes is to prolong misery” (p.128).
After my betrayal, I found it hard to start anew because, deep inside, I wanted to hold onto what I’d had because of how happy it had made me. It was hard to release the hope that maybe, somehow, things would go back to the way they used to be. But going back is impossible. Magic Gourd reminded Violet and me that holding onto false hopes only prolongs sadness and delays the process of letting go and moving on.
Violet continues to suffer after her first fall from grace. Though she manages to embrace her new life and rises in fame and success, her road does not improve. Her happiness is severed by death. Her hope is met with heartbreak. In the midst of her misery, a man who will later betray her says, “Your eyes see but have stopped looking” (p.320).
When grieving, this is exactly how you feel. You attend parties, but you’re not really present. You take a walk in the park, but you don’t observe your surroundings. Your eyes are still clouded with bitter thoughts of what you lost. One reason I love reading so much is because I find it comforting when my feelings are expressed perfectly in words, which is what Amy Tan did. Seeing my emotions written out there, on someone else’s page, helped me realize that my pain is universal and if others can overcome it, so can I.
Violet continues to place her trust in people who will hurt and betray her. After one last arduous trial that nearly breaks her, she makes a good decision and her life finally settles. But even then, she struggles to accept her happiness. She is still burdened by bitterness over her past, the people who injured her, and what could have been.
Magic Gourd tells Violet, “I’m not saying fate happens without blame. But when fate turns out well, everyone should forget the bad road that got us there” (p.561).
To the end, Violet held onto her vision of the person she could have been if she hadn’t been kidnapped as a child. But with Magic Gourd’s words in mind, Violet finally resolves her bitterness. In the last scene of the book, she pictures herself as she could have been if she’d been able to remain the rich, spoiled girl on her way to America. She waves “to the girl in the sailor dress as the ship receded, waving until it disappeared” (p.589). At long last, she lets go of her bitterness and anger.
Recovery after betrayal can take a long time and, while the path may seem hopeless, you must never lose hope that it will end. Amy Tan’s character reminded me that my own pain will fade as long as I can let go of what I believed. It will turn out fine in the end, but I should forget the bad road I walked before.
My stepmother keeps a postcard on our refrigerator. It’s a cheerful cartoon depicting a figure with a patched sack over one shoulder walking past a crossroads. The road on the left is labeled “Your life,” while the one on the right reads “No longer an option.”
The key to letting go is that realization. The road you thought you’d take is simply no longer an option. Violet didn’t want to take the new road, but sometimes life doesn’t offer you a choice. Situations change and you have to change with them. The key is to let go of false hopes, forget the bad road behind, leave the ruins of the house, and take the new road. The way ahead may be unclear and unsettling but at least now you’re walking forward, rather than looking back.
Lucy Holden is a Chicago-based writer who recently returned from a 9-month stint teaching English in Poland. She has been published in BLYNKT Magazine, ART Publika Magazine, and works as the blogger for Free Range Office. She has also had fiction and poetry published in 404 Ink, Rollick Magazine, and Polaris Lit. She loves travelling; playing fiddle; staring at impressionist paintings in the Art Institute; playing with her little sister; and, of course, writing.