In The Kitchen God’s Wife Amy Tan returns to a theme that had proved enormously successful with her debut novel The Joy Luck Club: the gap in understanding between mothers and their daughters.
Once again she plunders her own family’s history to bring a tale about the experiences of women in nineteenth century China and their struggle to find happiness in a culture that denied them choice and autonomy.
The Kitchen God’s Wife uses a tale told by Winnie Louie, a Chinese immigrant living in San Francisco, to her daughter Pearl.
Both women have secrets.
Pearl has kept quiet for seven years the fact she has multiple sclerosis, knowing her mother would react the way she always did when something bad happened; asking endless questions about why it had happened and how it could have been prevented.
Much easier to say nothing than to hear yet another theory from her mother that she should have been smart enough to see this disaster in time to stop it. She doesn’t know that Winnie has long kept her own secrets – about her past and the confusing circumstances of Pearl’s birth.
It takes an intervention by Helen Kwong, Winnie’s so-called sister-in-law, to get the two women to open up. Helen believes she is dying from a brain tumour and cannot fly off to heaven with Winnie’s lies and Pearl’s secret on her conscience. She threatens Pearl and Winnie that unless they tell the truth she will do it for them. And thus, after persuading Pearl to visit one afternoon, Winnie begins to peel back the veil on her past.
For the next three hundred pages or so we hear Winnie tell of her life when she was Weiwei and lived on a small island near Shanghai in the 1920s.
She was sent there at the age of six to live with her uncle and his two wives when her beautiful, free-spirited mother disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Winnie is always conscious of this stain on her character yet when the time comes for her to marry, her father does give her a generous dowry. Her chosen husband seems quite a catch though just before the wedding Winnie expresses her doubts.
If you asked me how I felt when they told me I would marry Wen Fu, I can say only this: It was like being told I had won a big prize. And it was also like being told my head was going to be chopped off. Something between those two feelings.
Unfortunately Wen Fu turns out to be not the dashing young pilot everyone thought he was, but an incompetent, boastful, manipulative spendthrift who enjoys beating, raping and humiliating his wife. Throughout her marriage Winnie endures physical hardship and mental abuse, sustained only by the friendship of Helen.
More than once she tries to leave Wen Fu but fate intervenes each time leading Winnie to compare herself to the wife of Zao Jun who still became the Kitchen God despite his ill treatment of his wife. A chance of happiness beckons when she meets Jimmy Louie at an American military dance and falls in love. He provides the means to escape her abusive marriage by joining him in America but this could be at the risk of losing her son.
Isn’t that how it is when you must decide with your heart? You are not just choosing one thing over another. You are choosing what you want. And you are also choosing what somebody else does not want, and all the consequences that follow. You can tell yourself, That’s not my problem, but those words do not wash the trouble away. Maybe it is no longer a problem in your life. But it is always a problem in your heart.
The Kitchen God‘s Wife feels awkward at times because it requires us to believe that everything Pearl hears about her mother’s life that afternoon sat at the kitchen table she is hearing for the first time. There are many details which I could accept would have been revelations but can we really believe that a daughter doesn’t even know how her parents met or how her mother ended up living in America in 1949?
Tan just about gets away with it because Winnie/Weiwei is such a good storyteller. She doesn’t flinch from the details whether she is listing the various dishes she cooks to impress her husband’s colleagues, the ordeals of overland journeys to remote towns where her husband is sent by the Air Force, the beatings she suffers or the terror of being out on the street during a Japanese bomb attack. Through her we learn too of the rituals of life for a Chinese woman in the period between 1920 and 1949 and the near impossibility of divorce.
The character of Winnie and her relationship with Pearl and Helen were the strongest, most enjoyable elements of the book.
Tan makes her a cranky woman initially, a rather domineering figure who as Pearl says begins every conversation “as if we were already in the middle of an argument.” Many of her disagreements are with Helen, her partner in a florists business, about food: whether this dish is too salty or too sour, whether the fish at the market is fresh and who is the best cook. Ultimately we learn that their rivalry is at face value for this is a book that in essence celebrates the resilience of a friendship shaped by horror and suffering.