If there’s one thing Amy Tan is comfortable with, it’s the mother-daughter relationship, particularly between Chinese immigrant mothers and their jaded American-born daughters. “The Kitchen God’s Wife” is absolutely no exception. Tan’s sophomore novel, “The Kitchen God’s Wife” follows on the footstep’s of Tan’s smash debut “The Joy Luck Club”. The easiest way to look at this novel is as essentially the same thing as “The Joy Luck Club”, but focusing on one relationship as opposed to four.
The story opens with Pearl, a married-with-two-kids woman approaching middle age and discovering she has MS. Everyone around her knows of her MS except for her mother, Winnie. While Pearl ho-hums over whether or not to tell her mother, Winnie’s “best friend”, Helen, drops the bomb that she’ll tell Winnie if Pearl doesn’t. Likewise, Helen threatens Winnie that she’ll tell Pearl about Winnie’s secrets. Of course, this is all done under a thin guise of Helen pretending to have a brain tumor.
When then happens is that Winnie comes completely clean about her life. The bulk of the story is a framed “story within a story” as Winnie gives her daughter a first hand account of youth and life in pre-Communist China. If you’ve read “The Joy Luck Club”, you can guess about how cheery and delightful it is.
Winnie’s horror story of being abandoned by her mother, cast out by her father, married to one of the most evil men to ever grace literature, and one dead baby after another….all while the Japanese are dropping bombs and the Kuomintang take no prisoners…is enough to put anyone with even a hard stomach off. But if there’s another thing Tan is great at, it’s her voice. The story is told in a very easy conversational style, full of Winnie’s random observations, funny digressions, and always laced in the hope that kept her going. Winnie always declares herself as “weak”, but anyone reading her story can safely say she’s one of the strongest characters to ever survive an Amy Tan plot.
That all said, there are a couple things keeping this book from reaching five glorious stars. First, is the obvious reuse of a story type already seen 4-8 times over in “The Joy Luck Club”. The second is a complete lack of empathy for Pearl and where her story is even going. She spends most of her three chapters she gets whining to herself, about her mother, about how she’s the queen of passive aggression to everyone around her. Also, as somebody with a mother who has MS, and while I understand this was written over twenty years ago, good Lord. Your life does not revolve around your MS.
My last great gripe is the title and its relevance to the plot and to the characters. All right, that’s hyperbole. It does have a place. But it’s completely glossed over and relegated to one paragraph towards the beginning of the book. The whole deal with the “Kitchen God” feels like an afterthought on Tan’s part. I get the relation of the title to Winnie, the main character, but damn if I didn’t care most of the time.
But overall, it’s another great piece of fiction and storytelling from one of my favorite authors. And like all her stories, it makes you question your relationship with your family and think “what if” when it comes to wondering if your mother is holding some great secret from you. But as I mentioned before, my mother has MS, like Pearl, and at this point she’s probably forgotten any of the great secrets she may have been harboring inside.