Amy Tan’s stunningly successful first novel, The Joy Luck Club, conveyed to hundreds of thousands of readers the news that there is no simple solution to the mother-daughter question, such as being Chinese. The book’s vignettes of fussing, smothering Chinese immigrant mothers and resentful, guilty American- born daughters were variations on a universal theme of generational dissonance. I haven’t done a survey, but my guess is that the majority of Joy Luck’s readers were women, and, whatever their background, they found in it disconcerting, touching, and funny echoes of themselves and their own mothers or daughters. The Kitchen God’s Wife begins on the same note but quickly turns into a richer, darker work that lives up to Tan’s proclaimed promise and then some.
Pearl Louie, a Chinese-American speech therapist in her early 40s, has come to dread visiting her widowed mother, Winnie. Born in Shanghai, now in her 70s and still running a flower shop in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Winnie Louie is summed up pretty well in her daughter’s narration of a disastrous weekend in which Pearl and her husband, Phil, and their two small daughters attend a family dinner and her great-aunt’s funeral. Winnie can’t let go of Pearl and assumes a huge burden of responsibility for her, but it’s Pearl who feels crushed by it. Pearl is already burdened by a secret: She’s been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, though the main symptom so far is only fatigue. She feels guilty because she can’t bring herself to tell her mother, who would wonder what she had done wrong 50 or 60 years ago to bring this evil fate upon her daughter: ”According to my mother, nothing is an accident. She’s like a Chinese version of Freud, or worse. Everything has a reason. Everything could have been prevented.”
Just ask the kitchen god. The kitchen god spies on every family from his household altar and doles out good luck and bad. As the ill-starred weekend ends, Pearl receives Great-Auntie Du’s legacy: a strikingly ugly altar for the officious, capricious kitchen god, who seems to have hired Pearl’s mother and the rest of the family as part-time help.
And then the voice and the story suddenly change. For the next 300 pages, it’s all mother of Pearl. Winnie gives a gripping account of her life in China, beginning with the raffish cosmopolitan Shanghai of the ’30s, where her mother, the most abused of her rich father’s five wives, suddenly disappears, leaving the beautiful, naive Winnie to be brought up by relatives. Gradually Winnie unleashes her own potent secrets, her cache of dramatically good and bad luck. She escapes Nanking just before the infamous Japanese rape; she spends the war in the remote mountain city of Kunming, at the end of the Burma Road; she flees Shanghai as the Communists close in; and she suffers every ordeal that marriage to a sadistic liar can offer. Her first husband, a cowardly pilot named Wen Fu, repeatedly rapes, beats, and threatens her when not busy raping the servants. He is also responsible for the death of one of her first three children, none of whom live. The plot turns on Winnie’s escape from him; the book’s powerful emotional truth turns on our understanding and Pearl’s understanding of why her mother bargains with fate and clings to her. Narrated in a casual, conversational style, The Kitchen God’s Wife has a memorable intensity.