THE KITCHEN GOD’S WIFE
Winnie and Helen have been friends for a great many years. They spent much of the Sino-Japanese War together, as young brides travelling with their pilot husbands, and afterwards they both made new lives for themselves in San Francisco. But now Helen, convinced that she’s dying, wants to unburden herself of all the secrets she’s kept, so that she can leave this world with a clean conscience – and Winnie, who has entrusted Helen with many secrets over the years of their friendship, has only a short time in which to confess all to her grown-up daughter Pearl, before Pearl has to hear her mother’s story from somebody else.
The Kitchen God’s Wife was first published in 1991, and is loosely based on the story of Amy Tan’s own mother, and the first marriage that she kept a secret for much of her daughter’s childhood.
The story is divided into three distinct sections, of which the second takes up the greatest portion of the book. The whole section (of around 300 pages) is presented as a monologue – Winnie’s tale of her life in China, how she came to marry Wen Fu, and how she tried to escape from her marriage.
The very beginning of the book is where it falls a little flat – which is a shame, because it makes the book quite difficult to get into. The first section of the book is set in San Francisco, and is told from the perspective of Winnie’s daughter Pearl, who is heading to her mother’s house with her husband and children for a family reunion that none of them are particularly looking forward to. This part is definitely necessary, in order to set the scene for Winnie’s confession, but it is very slow-moving, and also somewhat dry.
The tale of the Kitchen God from Chinese mythology (and also, of course, his wife, who gave the book its title) is only mentioned a few times in the story, but I really appreciated the way it tied in to the main storyline, and brought everything together at the end.
Winnie (called for most of the story by her Chinese name, Weili) is the story’s main protagonist, and she is an incredibly strong character. Seen through Pearl’s eyes at the beginning of the story, she initially comes off as superstitious and reactionary, and really rather silly – but as the story goes on, and we begin to know her better, we are also better able to understand her. And though she has her irrationalities (as we all do, I’m sure 😉 ), there is a good reason why she sees life the way she does, and for the way she interacts with her daughter.
Helen (whose Chinese name is Hulan), is Winnie’s well-meaning but somewhat insensitive friend, and – given that Winnie is telling this story so that Pearl won’t hear it from Helen instead – much of the narrative is concerned with how Helen came to know things, and how they came to be friends, despite their contrasting personalities and backgrounds.
Wen Fu is the book’s main villain, and he is a truly odious figure, who was very quickly added to the (very short) list of characters that I truly hate – joining the likes of Joffrey from A Song of Ice & Fire by George R.R. Martin and Dimitri from The Bronze Horseman by Paullina Simons. Blatantly both physically and emotionally abusive towards his wife, it’s certainly easy to see why Winnie and Helen describe him right off the bat as “that bad man”. It truly takes a brilliantly-written villain to make the reader hate them this much.
Other important characters included Peanut and Auntie Du, who were both brilliant, and of course Pearl, the first character we meet in the book – who is keeping her own secrets, and dreading the day when she’ll inevitably have to tell her mother. She was an interesting character, to be sure, but since the story only follows her for a short time, it’s difficult to form the same connection with her that we do with Winnie.
Lastly, there’s Jimmy Louie, the man Winnie married when she came to America. He’s already died by the time Pearl begins to tell her story, but he shows up several times during Winnie’s tale, working as an interpreter for the U.S. army in China, and he’s an incredibly sweet man.
This book is all about relationships – some romantic, but most platonic. Winnie and Pearl, Winnie and Peanut, Winnie and Helen, Winnie and Wen Fu, and Winnie and Jimmy… I could go on. The main thing to say about these relationships, however, is that every one of them rings incredibly true. Winnie and Jimmy’s love for one another, despite all their struggles, is incredibly touching. And I’m sure everyone has at some point had a friend like Helen (or at least known someone who has), who could irritate Winnie to no end, but who saw and understood a lot more than she let on, and knew her inside out.
The writing is excellent. It’s not flowery or particularly poetic, but it’s incredibly absorbing, and it really brings out Winnie’s voice. As I have already stated, the story is told in first person, and is mainly comprised of an incredibly long monologue. In a lot of books, I would probably find this annoying (long monologues – and particularly soliloquies – are one of my biggest bookish pet-peeves) but Amy Tan does a wonderful job of writing it as if it’s not a monologue – and then suddenly reminding you that the whole story is being told orally, when Winnie addresses Pearl directly. And because Pearl and the reader are hearing the story together, she is also able to use this technique to address us, to excellent effect. One of my favourite quotes from the book is this:
This is the kind of China you Americans always see in the movies – the poor countryside, people wearing big hats to protect themselves from the sun. No, I never wore a hat like that! I was from Shanghai. That’s like thinking someone from San Francisco wears a cowboy hat and rides a horse. Ridiculous!
OVERALL IMPRESSION [5/5]
A touching and superbly-written account of an incredibly strong woman dealing as best she can with an abusive marriage. Anyone even remotely interested in the premise of this book should definitely give it a try.
Anyone interested in Chinese culture, particularly during the Sino-Japanese War. In regards to other books, fans of Paullina Simon’s The Bronze Horseman trilogy may like The Kitchen God’s Wife for Winnie’s struggle to escape from Wen Fu, and Kim Thúy’s Mãn had a similar sense of cultural immersion, though it wasn’t quite so in-depth as in this book.
The edition I’m reading (Harper Perennial, 2004) also includes a brief section at the back, where it recommends several books to readers who enjoyed The Kitchen God’s Wife. I obviously can’t vouch for them personally (as most of them I’ve never even heard of), but for those who are interested, the list is as follows: Sour Sweet by Timothy Mo; The Foreign Student by Susan Choi; Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck; A Many-Splendoured Thing by Han Suyin; Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee; The Book of Salt by Monique Truong; and When the Emperor was Divine by Julie Otsuka.