In the Chinese tale of the Kitchen God, a man named Zhang, who owes his wealth and success to the efforts of his wife Guo, grows tired of her and throws her aside for another woman. When he falls on hard times and becomes destitute, fate puts him back with Guo, but his shame leads to his death. In the afterlife, he is rewarded for his remorse by being made the Kitchen God, a sort of spy, susceptible to bribery, who bestows luck upon individuals. But what about Guo? What about her hard work and suffering? Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife is the story of another wife/daughter/mother who suffers indignity and abuse. Jiang Weili, aka Winnie, has never told her daughter Pearl about her past in China, but now thanks to her friend Helen, she must reveal long kept secrets. This is an outstanding novel that focuses on the trauma and destructiveness of patriarchy, while also showing that one who appears weak and frightened might actually be strong and bold.
Winnie came to the US just before the communists took over China. Her two children were born in California and her husband died some years ago. Winnie and her friend/sister-in-law Helen have run a florist shop together in Chinatown for many years, but both are now in their 70s and Helen, who has recently discovered she is ill, has delivered an ultimatum to Winnie: You must tell your daughter Pearl the truth about the past or else I will spill the secrets for you. Helen delivers the same ultimatum to Pearl, who has secrets of her own. Winnie and Pearl have had an uneasy relationship for decades. Pearl feels judged and as if she doesn’t measure up to her mother’s strict, high standards. Winnie does not understand her daughter and worries about her and the grandchildren. Winnie would rather not discuss her past but she decides she will tell Pearl about it because she does not trust Helen to remember things correctly. What ensues is an absolutely riveting and heartbreaking tale of maternal love and loss, of female suffering and solidarity in the face of a rigidly patriarchal society and a world at war.
Winnie’s story begins in Shanghai, born to a beautiful mother and a wealthy, powerful father. Winnie’s mother was one of several wives to her father, and she was always a bit different, a bit less traditional than the other wives. Winnie adored her, but her mother disappeared when Winnie was 6, and Winnie’s life was turned on its head from there. She never discovered exactly what happened to her mother, but it was a source of shame and discomfort for her father, and so Winnie was shipped off to an uncle and his wives on an island. She attended Catholic boarding school with her cousin Peanut and while she was not exactly abused by her relatives, she was also not warmly welcomed or loved. Her father remained out of touch until Winnie’s marriage was arranged with a young man named Wen Fu. On the face of it, it seemed as if the arrangement was a good match; Wen Fu was charming and his family ran a good business, but after marriage, Winnie quickly learned the truth. Wen Fu was a horrible, abusive husband, a liar, unfaithful, a bully. He enjoyed humiliating Winnie and did not hesitate to do so in front of others.
With war on the horizon, Wen Fu joined the Air Force, and Winnie followed him as pilots moved from city to city in China. Helen, or rather Hulan, was another Air Force wife. She and Winnie met in 1937, and since their lives were thrown together for many years during wartime, they became friends. Winnie thought Helen was a bit of a country rube, not well educated and a bit too willing to see what she wanted to see instead of reality. Helen (and the other pilots and their wives) could see what kind of man Wen Fu was, and yet no one ever challenged him or defended Winnie, not even when the health and safety of their small children were at stake. As Winnie tells Pearl,
I was like that wife of the Kitchen God. Nobody worshipped her either. He got all the excuses. He got all the credit. She was forgotten.
Humiliation, fear and pain became the hallmarks of Winnie’s life throughout wartime. She wanted a divorce, but Wen Fu would not grant one and punished her further for asking. Winnie in telling her story relates that she felt weak, and that this is embarrassing, yet she also was strong enough to wait it out and see if she could somehow escape her marriage. Her opportunity would not come until after the war ended, and her assistance comes from a number of surprising sources. Winnie’s patience and fortitude, and ultimately her boldness and bravery, had me cheering for her even as she paid a steep price for her actions.
What the reader discovers at the end of the novel is that so many characters, so many women, lived with secrets and shame, and were forced to deal with untenable situations especially related to marriages. Some women were broken by their experience. I must give a trigger warning: this book features quite a lot of physical and emotional abuse of women and children, as well as rape. Yet it is a beautifully written story about the power of maternal love and of hope in the face of war, abusive patriarchy, and societal complicity in the denigration of women. This is my first Amy Tan novel but it won’t be my last. Her characters and their stories have haunted me since finishing this novel last week. I can’t recommend it highly enough.