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Having read and loved "The Bonesetters Daughter", I've made a point of aiming to read Amy Tan's other works, and managed to come across this one in my local library. As with "The Bonesetters Daughter" (and from what I've read, some of her other books), this story is told from the points of view of a Chinese mother and her American daughter, allowing for a fascinating insight into the generation gap between mother and daughter made even more complicated by a massive cultural gap.
The story starts off in first person, from the pint of view of Pearl, the daughter. Pearl has harboured a secret from her mother for many years, however at a family gathering her aunt Helen tells her that she is fighting a brain tumour and has decided to relieve herself of all secrets before she dies, therefore if Pearl does not tell her mother her secret, Helen will. However unbeknown to Pearl, her mother Winnie also harbours many secrets, and Helen has made the same threat to her. The scene is then set for a change in point of view to Winnie, who finally tells Pearl everything there is to know about her past.
Ms Tan manages to seamlessly move from one characters point of view to the other and expertly manages to capture their voice so that we know exactly who is talking. She has a loose writing style which means that the prose is kept conversational and not too formal, yet people and places, and indeed experiences, are described in vivid detail. Winnie's story, set in pre-revolutionary China, is particularly fascinating as it gives a wonderful insight into another way of life, where women were simply seen as wives and where folklore and family history have a tremendous influence of day-to-day life. Winnie's story starts when she is sent to live with her aunts as a child, and while the aunts are not outright cruel to her, their dismissive, harsh treatment is Winnie's punishment for her mother's mistakes. This book doesn't make easy reading in parts. Winnie is later married to Wen-Fu, a cruel and manipulative man whose treatment of Winnie and - even worse - his children, made me gasp out loud at times. The story deals with grief and abuse and loss and war, but equally with love, friendship, strength and hope. Winnie is a strong and resilient character who eventually refuses to simply accept her fate and does what she can to secure a better life for herself.
There are lighter moments in the story and indeed Winnie herself has a somewhat humorous outlook on life at times, which prevents the story from getting too heavy in places. Her final revelation leaves Pearl reeling and it is interesting to compare how Winnie and Pearl deal with each other's secrets. The story is framed by family gatherings - the start of the book has an engagement party and a funeral, and the end of the book has a wedding. These events further highlight the differences between Pearl and Winnie, and also explores the changes in their fraught relationship before and after their revelations.
The title of the book comes from a myth about a man who mistreated his wife but was made a God because he eventually repented. It makes us question why he was made a God, while his wife had to suffer. There is a parallel between this story and Winnie's story, which becomes apparent after reading.
I find the detail in this novel fascinating and am most impressed with the amount of research that this must have undertook. I believe Ms Tan has based some of the story on her family history, however further research must have been inevitable. She has painted a harrowing yet not overly sentimental picture of life in before, during and after World War Two, along with crafting realistic family relationships. I found this book very hard to put down and would highly recommend it.
Amy Tan already had a best seller with The Joy Luck Club when this was published in the UK in 1991, but I came to her as an unknown author.
I was gripped by the story of a woman who migrated to America after the Civil war and to escape a violent marriage, and delighted in discovering a lot about Chinese culture and customs.
The book opens as Pearl takes her young family to visit her mother in the family home in San Jose, California, for the Buddhist funeral of Great Auntie Du and then moves back in time to pre war China.
Just as Pearl is hiding the fact that she has a serious illness from her mother, at the same time her mother's friend Helen wants to unburden a secret from her past, which prompts Winnie to tell her story to her daughter.
Whether under the traditional patriachy, or the new order of the Kuomintang (Nationalist) forces, chinese women had little freedom enshrined in law or custom. Bound up with the belief in fate and retribution for sins of the past, was the lack of access to outside influences and foreigners, especially during war time. Winnie Lou was the daughter of a second second wife. Her husband had married her to replace the 'second' wife who had died, while still also being married to his first wife. We do not know exactly what happened to her mother, but she dies when Winnie is a child, presumably by suicide.
After growing up with her friend Peanut and aunts, Winnie Louie - Jiang Weili as she was before she married Pearl's father - marries a young officer. In a story told in the first person, she reveals to Pearl the true story about her marriage and friends in pre-revolutionary China. Both Great Auntie Du, whose funeral Pearl attends, and her friend Helen Kwong were there with her.
The strong traditions and religious beliefs in the Chinese community hold memories of a deeper struggle for survival by the first generation of immigrants who lived through the war. Amy Tan set the more intimate story of Winnie's life against the backdrop of this war.
During the 1930's China was under attack from Japanese forces particularly in the north, but at the same time was a country divided between the communist forces of Mao's peasant Red Army in its enclaves, and the Nationalist forces of the Chiang Kaishek, influenced by Hitler (although both sides were nominally united in the face of Japanese invasion. As the young wife of a pilot, Winnie spends several years in Kunming, the Nationalist stronghold in Kunming in central China, and enduring many deprivations.
Following this came the Second World War, and the Communist Revolution in 1949.
After listening to Winnie's story, Pearl is forced to re-evaluate her family history and what it means to be chinese in America. In places the story is harrowing and surprising, especially some of the memories of the older women, although it is lightened by more moving and funny moments.
Tan brings out truths common to mother-daughter relationships and is brilliant at portraying characters sympathetically.
I enjoyed the explanation of the different Chinese deities and customs and rated it one of the best books I had read in a long time.
Well, I have been busy reading recently and have found some real gems of novels, which truly deserve to be more renowned than they are. Alas, from the pen of Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club) I’ve just finished reading The Kitchen God’s Wife. Let me explain this rather obscure title. In China there are many gods representing many different things: Money gods, Love gods to name a couple. The Kitchen God, according to one of our narrators of the novel, originates from a story from China about a farmer named Zhang. Zhang was married to a hardworking wife named Guo. Because of her hard work, his farm thrived, but despite this Zhang was not contented. He one day brought home a beautiful woman called Lady Li and ordered his wife to cook for her, whilst he had a bit on the side (if you know what I mean). Lady Li eventually drove Zhang’s wife out of the house so that she and Guo’s husband could live in perfect bliss. After a period of time the farm went rapidly downhill and all Zhang’s good luck disappeared and Lady Li ran off with another man. A destitute beggar, Zhang went from household to household asking for food, until one day he fell down and waited to die. When he awoke he was lying in a kitchen and was told by a woman tending to him that a wonderful woman who would help anyone had brought him there. This wonderful woman walked into the kitchen and Zhang was horrified to see that it was his wife, Guo. In shame he tried to find somewhere to hide, but could only find the kitchen fire, and so jumped into it and perished. In heaven, the Jade Emperor learnt of Zhang’s story and exclaimed that because Zhang “Had the courage to admit that he was wrong” he would become the Kitchen God. He would report each year to the emperor,those who deserved good luck because of their generosity and those who deserved bad luck due to their greed. And so I conclude…. Na, I know
this is a lengthy introduction to The Kitchen God’s Wife, but an allusion that is central to the themes of the novel. So, I’ll begin… The predominant plot of the novel is centred on the relationship between a Chinese mother and her American daughter. Pearl, married with children and born and raised in America has a fraught relationship with her Chinese mother who emigrated to America at the time of the Chinese revolution. Both women have secrets, which they have kept from one another but are forced to confess. What follows, is a naïve, funny but harrowing story by Pearl’s mother Winnie, of her life in China before Pearl was born: A story of fate, abuse, war and strength. Told using first person narratives, the stories of both Pearl and her mother highlight the strains between ‘mother and daughter’ relationships and that closely guarded secret of a mother’s youth. Tan’s wry humour prevents the novel becoming a novel of slushy sentimentality; a trait I can’t stand in writing. As with many of Amy Tan’s novels, the reader is engrossed in a different world: the historical and cultural strangeness of China: where women were indisputably born to be married and to obey their husbands, no matter what. Nothing new here, except for the idea of fate shaping a Chinese life. Winnie had accepted her fate, as a punishment for past family misdemeanours. Fortunes and Gods play vital roles in Chinese folklore, but Winnie eventually realises that fate has also got to be procured as well as being awaited. Thematically, The Kitchen God’s Wife, is an entanglement of Chinese culture and Western ideals. The metaphorical god of the novel provokes a feminist response of ‘why the hell was a man made a god, when he treated his wife so badly?’ Shouldn’t the wife have been made a god? Winnie, herself, asks this and the tide is turned. In fact all the women within the n
ovel challenge this idea, whether they are Chinese by birth or American. It doesn’t make them feminists, just bright enough to know that value comes from a person irrespective of their sex, race or religion. But why be a god when you can still be alive? Punishment is a strange thing.
This novel has not received the critical acclaim of the Joy Luck Club but shows her writing at it's best. The story revolves around a mother/ daughter relationship which forms the basis for most of her novels. In this novel, the daughter, Pearl is happily married with a family but in many ways distant from her mother. She has MS but has not told her mother because she fears her reaction. A family friend's illness is the catalyst for the sharing of their secrets. However, her mother has kept many secrets about her past from her and the novel sensitively addresses the difficulties of the parent /child relationship compounded by cross cultural differences. The novel is split into 4 sections, of differing length, the introduction through the eyes of the daughter, the substance of the novel is the mother sharing her past with her daughter, the terrible nature of her past life is softened by her humour and candour. The conclusion is then shared between the mother and daughter. I was impressed by how Tan managed to seamlessly change the voice of the narrator throughout the novel, she believably wrote in the voice of each person, and it made each character fuller. Tan's portrayal of the Chinese mother and her American daughter are outstanding and the details she puts in make it so true to life. I've said this before in my review of White Teeth, but this won't stop me saying it again. I find the pigeon holing of some novelists into ethnic or multi-cultural writers quite patronising as it reinforces the idea that all other novelists write from a neutral position. Unsurprisingly, it seems to happen more to female novelists. This book although having specific meaning to me culturally has things to say to a much wider audience particularly about oppression and the difficult choices people have to make. I find the portrayals very true to life having a Chinese mother, though I'm not American (thankfully). I must admit t
hat some of my mother's idiosyncracies and attitudes have been explained to me through Tan's work. I always thought that my mother was a bit strange! It's made me have a lot more empathy for my mother and in some instances guilty for my attitude towards her during my childhood. The ability of Tan to make me reflect, laugh and sometimes feel a bit uncomfortable through her fiction makes her one of my favourite novelists.
Focusing on the life of one woman, this book spans the years from pre-Revolutionary China to present day America. It covers the themes of cultural differences, the problems of exile, the generation gap and above all the special relationship between mothers and daughters.