Today I'll be reviewing a novel written by Amy Tan. The Kitchen God's Wife was my second novel by Amy Tan and it is also her second novel in order of publications. I didn't decide to write her novels in order of publication or anything like that, it just happened accidentally. Published in 1991, this novel is like her debut novel The Joy Luck Club written from a feminine perspective.
As it often the case with Tan, this novel focuses on the dynamics of an American Chinese family, more precisely on the relationship between a mother and a daughter. There are other characters, but there is no doubt that the mother and the daughter are the protagonists of the novel. Pear and Winnie are not only the narrators of the story, they are what this novel is about.
The Kitchen God’s Wife opens with the daughter’s narration. Pearl has been born to a Chinese mother and Chinese American father, that is, Pearl’s mother moved to USA to get married to an American Chinese man. Consequently, Pearl’s mother Winnie is still deeply rooted in her Chinese culture. Pearl, on the other hand, has grown up in USA and belongs to another culture. Pearl has a secret that she hides from her mother. Pearl has multiple sclerosis, a vicious immune disease (all immune diseases are chronic and incurable, so it is not that strange that Pearl hides it from Winnie). Pearl’s condition being something that I understand perfectly (suffering from an immune disease myself), made it easier for me to get involved into the story from the start. As the story progresses, we realize that the relationship between the Pearl and Winnie is quite complex, which by might another reason why Pearl has revealed her health condition to almost everyone but Winnie.
When an elderly aunt dies, Pearls meditates about her past and present. While Pearl is reflecting and writing about Chinese funeral customs, she also shares a lot about Chinese beliefs and traditions. I quite enjoyed reading about that. The way Pearl was explaining cultural related things was simple but interesting. Pearl doesn’t go into great detail, but as I said, she does some cultural explaining. What follows next is that Pearl’s mother Winnie invites Pearl and her family to an engagement party of their cousin. At the same time, Pearl’s aunt confront Pearl, insisting that Pearl must tell Winnie the truth about her health condition or the aunt will.
I won’t get into what happens next (to avoid spoilers) but I need to mention that Winnie becomes a narrator as well. Winnie retells her incredibly painful life with a powerful voice. At times it was difficult to read about everything that happened to Winnie, I often felt like it was all too much. Is it even possible that so many horrible things can happen to somebody? There were a few episodes that could have been left out, as there was no need to turn an already tragic story into some kind of a contest of how many horrible things can happen to a single person. At one point I even felt frustrated, wondering how Winnie will ever manage to escape the vicious circle she was trapped in, but I’m certainly glad I continued reading as it all makes sense in the end.
Winnie makes for an amazing narrator, I simply loved her character. Even if I felt there was simply too much happening to Winnie, I sympathized with her every step of the way. When I was reading Winnie’s story I felt transported to another time and place. Pearl’s narrative is modern, Winnie’s is more old fashion, and somehow these two work perfectly together. Some parts of Winnie’s narrative continue to haunt me, especially one particular sentence that also happens to be my favourite quote from this book:
„That is the saddest thing when you lose someone you love- that person keeps changing. And later you wonder. Is it the same person I lost? Maybe you lost more, maybe less, there are thousand things that come from imagination and you don't know which is which, which was true, which is false".
I swear this has to be one of the most profound things ever written about grief. When we mourn for somebody, when we try to accept somebody’s death, what we are afraid of is not only how we will live without them but how we will leave without their memory. The older I get, the more I realize that memory often plays trick on us. This the worst of pain, to wonder whether we remember our loved one correctly, and knowing there is no way we can know for sure. That doubt (often followed by guilt) is perhaps what hurts us the most.
On overall, I would say that this novel was easier to follow than The Joy Luck Club, mainly because there are only two narrators. In addition, the narrators both have very distinct voices and are well developed characters. It is easy to understand both Winnie and Pearl but perhaps even more importantly one can understand why misunderstanding between them occurs, perhaps even why it had to occur. Their relationship is a complex but a loving one. The way Pear and Winnie act both in respect to one another and to other people makes sense, the motivation behind their actions is very clear. This rounded character development is something I quite liked.
Their characters are better developed and more rounded compared to those in The Joy Luck Club (even if we admit that there was less place for character development in that one, I have to notice that those characters were a little flat while these are anything but). Finally, their life story is interesting and worth reading (even if I think that on Winnie’s side of things there was some exaggeration. Not in the sense that these kind of terrible things described in Winnie’s life story didn’t use to happen to women, and probably still do for that matter, but in the sense that it felt excessive to include that amount of trauma and put it all on the shoulders of one character.
This novel seems better developed and more mature than Tan’s first, yet somehow I still liked it a bit less than The Joy Luck Club. Having already been introduced to similar themes in Amy Tan’s previous novel, I have to admit that I felt a little less involved in the story. Reading The Joy Luck Club felt like being immersed into a magical world. I felt involved while I was reading this book, but not as fully immersed into the narrative as with the first one. There is magic in this one for sure, but something of that newness of reading experience that contributed to the feeling of what I now can call ‘wonder’ is gone. Had this been the first Amy Tam novel I have ever read, I would have had probably given it five stars, this way I think that a four star marking is more appropriate.
I loved this novel but I can’t say I have fallen madly in love with it or anything like that. I had a feeling I got what I was hoping for, if you know what I mean, but there wasn’t anything extra. However, there is no doubt in my mind that The Kitchen God's Wife is a powerful novel, one well worth reading. I would certainly recommend this one, especially to those interested in themes it explores.