Amy Tan is well known for the themes of mother-daughter relationships and Chinese-American identity. In The Kitchen God’s Wife these themes are certainly present, especially the idea of dealing with the divide between the expectations in life for a woman in pre-WWII China and post-War America.
The mother-daughter duo in this story are Winnie Louie and her daughter Pearl Louie Brandt. Winnie was brought up in pre-war China, with all the cultural and social expectations that brings with it. She is from a rich family of industrialists, but as the story moves on, a different complexion is cast over her life. Her daughter, Pearl, is born in post-war America and has married a non-Chinese. While Pearl’s father, Jimmy, died when she was a teenager, she certainly has nothing on her mother’s life experiences.
The pivotal character in the story is Winnie’s long-time friend and business partner, Helen. She is Pearl’s “Auntie Helen” and due to a brain tumour she pokes both mother and daughter to reveal the secrets she knows both women are carrying and keeping from each other.
The majority of the story revolves around Winnie’s life and brutal marriage in China. Her husband is a nasty bully of the worst type. For me it is this aspect of the story that had the most impact. The theme of how a mother and daughter can struggle to relate to each other is clearly there to see, but for me the majority of the book spoke to the fortitude that some women show in their lives and how that shapes them.
In this modern, western society those of us who live free from such abuses would wonder and possibly criticise Winnie’s apparent inability to take self-protective action in order to get away from an abusive relationship. Now, as then, the reality for many women is that taking action is not the easier option. The power, control and fear that abusive people hold over their victims simply does not allow for a sliver of hope. Amplify this with social expectations, as was the case in the early years of the 20th Century in China, and the choices are very bleak indeed.
Even though I wondered at the extent to which Winnie puts up with the ongoing abuse and the behaviour of the people around her who could hardly miss what was going on, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was an easy read, slightly compulsive as you know there are resolutions coming, but it is not clear how they are to come about.
The scenes were very easy to picture and I felt like I was there in person watching the goings on. That’s what a good book does for me, it draws me in.
I give this a 4 star Ms Oh Waily rating.
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