Genre: Historical fiction, Chinese fiction
Narrative Style: First person from two different points of view.
Synopsis: Winnie and Helen have kept each other’s secrets for years, since they first came to America in fact. Helen believes she is dying so she wants to tell all of Winnie’s secrets. Winnie decides to tell her daughter, Pearl, everything herself. Pearl also has secrets that she is frightened to tell her mother.
Book Challenges: TBR Pile Challenge
Time on shelf: About eight years. I inherited it from my husband’s aunt. I might have read it sooner but was put off by a more recent Tan novel, The Valley of Amazement, that I really did not enjoy.
The Kitchen God’s Wife starts with the first person story of Pearl, Winnie’s daughter. Pearl’s relationship with her mother is fractious. Winnie seems like a stereotypical Chinese mother, irritable, full of wise sayings and seeming not to have fitted into American life. Pearl is so removed from her, she hasn’t told her she has multiple sclerosis – a secret she has kept for seven years. Little does Pearl realise but her mother also has many secrets. When ‘Aunt’ Helen says she is dying and feels she needs to tell all secrets, both mother and daughter realise they need to talk to each other. Winnie invites her daughter to visit and proceeds to tell her the story of her life. This takes up the bulk of the novel.
Winnie – or Weiwei as she is known – is abandoned by her mother at age 6 for reasons unknown and her life of privilege ends. She is sent to live in the countryside with her Uncle’s family where life is tougher for her. Stories fly around about her mother but she never finds out the truth about the disappearance. This is the start of Weiwei’s sorrows and pains. Her Uncle’s family aren’t unkind but she feels she is less loved than her cousin, Peanut.
Tan doesn’t let up after that. Weiwei marries Wen Fu. He had previously courted Peanut but changes to Weiwei when he realises she is richer. This greed will be a theme of the novel with Wen Fu doing terrible things to try and hold on to Weiwei’s money. He rapes Weiwei and is violent towards her. He sleeps with other women, sometimes bringing them into the family home. He lies about his war record, claiming to be a hero when in fact, he used to fly away from the Japanese fighter planes. Weiwei’s life with him is miserable and difficult. She also loses three children.
Weiwei suffers terribly during the war and after when she ends up in prison when Wen Fu accuses her of stealing away their son and letting him die. (He died in an epidemic.) By now, she has met Jimmy (Pearl’s father) who presents a clear contrast to Wen Fu. He represents hope for the future as does the move to America.
Weiwei’s story takes up the majority of the novel with Pearl’s narrative framing it. We return to Pearl at the end so she can share her secret. I would have liked to hear a little more of Pearl’s voice but really this is Weiwei’s story which mirrors the story of China during the second world war. An interesting, emotional read.