The Kitchen God's Wife

The Kitchen God's Wife

"The Kitchen God's Wife" is a novel by Amy Tan. Like many of her works, it deals with Chinese-American female identity.

The Kitchen God's Wife opens with the narrative voice of Pearl Louie Brandt, the American-born daughter of a Chinese mother and a Chinese-American father, who is a speech therapist living in San Jose. Pearl's mother, Winnie Louie, has called Pearl to request that she and her family attend the engagement party of Pearl's cousin Bao-Bao in San Francisco. Pearl is reluctant to oblige her mother, since she is more involved in her American identity — perhaps a result of her marriage to Phil, an American — than her Chinese background. Nevertheless, she feels an obligation to attend the family festivities and knows she would feel guilty if she did otherwise. Then, two days before the engagement party, Pearl receives another call from her mother telling her that Auntie Du has died and that the funeral will be arranged for the day after the engagement party. With these obligations on her shoulders, Pearl sets out for San Francisco with her young daughters, Tessa and Cleo, and her husband. Upon Pearl's return home, her Auntie Helen, Bao-Bao's mother, who co-owns a florist shop with Winnie, makes a demand: she insists that Pearl must tell Winnie that she has multiple sclerosis, about which everyone else in the family knows. Helen claims that she is suffering from a malignant brain tumor and does not want to die knowing that Winnie is unaware of her daughter's illness. Helen adds that if Pearl will not tell Winnie the truth, she will do it herself.

Later, Helen tells Winnie that she must unveil the truth of her past to Pearl because she cannot go to her grave with such secrets. The reader later learns that Helen knows her tumor is benign and is using the threat of her own imminent death as a pretext to force mother and daughter to be honest with one another.

At this point, the novel switches to the narrative voice of Winnie Louie, who tells the story of her past to Pearl. Before reaching the United States, Winnie experienced much turmoil, strife, and suffering. She was abandoned by her mother, a lesser wife of her father, as a young child, and did not fully understand her mother's mysterious disappearance. Winnie, whose Chinese name is Weili, was forced to live with her Uncle and his two wives (New Aunt and Old Aunt) and never felt as loved as her uncle's true daughter, Weili's cousin, Peanut. Nevertheless, when the time came, Winnie's aunts arranged a traditional marriage for her, and her father provided a large dowry, since he was an educated and well-established man.

The marriage to Wen Fu, who first courted Peanut but transferred his attentions to Weili when he learned of her father's wealth, turned out to be a disaster. Wen Fu was horrifically abusive — physically, mentally, and emotionally, and Weili just managed to suffer through her marriage while also surviving World War II. She lost many children along the way, some to early deaths and one that was stillborn.

It was during the War that Weili became friends with Helen, whose Chinese name was Hulan, and in telling her daughter about this friendship, Winnie reveals that she and Helen were never really in-laws as the family in America believes, but only friends who endured much hardship together. After Weili married Pearl's Chinese-American father, Jimmie Louie, moved to the United States, and took the name Winnie, she lied and claimed that Helen had been her dead brother's wife in order to sponsor Helen's immigration.

Pearl has always been told that Jimmie Louie was her father. He was a good husband, a good father, and a minister in the Chinese Baptist Church, but he died when Pearl was a teenager. Winnie explains that she met Jimmy Louie in China, at an American military dance. He was extremely kind, the two fell in love, and Winnie escaped with him, after running away from Wen Fu. The greatest secret, however, is that just before Winnie was able to escape her marriage, Wen Fu raped her and that Winnie became pregnant as a result of the rape, or so she believes. Winnie explains that it is only now that she feels truly free of Wen Fu's wickedness and threats, because she has received news of his death from China. After Winnie tells her story, Pearl reveals the secret of her disease. By the time the wedding of Bao-Bao comes around, mother and daughter have come to know each other better and are better able to appreciate their respective positions, ideas, and beliefs. At the end of the novel, Helen reveals that she is planning a trip to China, one that Helen, Pearl, and Winnie will take together.


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