The Kitchen God’s Wife, written by Amy Tan, is a novel that is based on the family of Winnie Louie and their Chinese heritage in America. It speaks of the timeline of World War II and how much suffering this family, specifically Winnie, had to endure.
The story starts off from the perspective of Winnie’s daughter, Pearl, who is an Americanized Chinese and is barely familiar with her Chinese family heritage. Most of this is because of her heavy American upbringing and also because of her own family where her husband is a legit American. Hence, she never felt the need to rely on the Chinese cultures much as she was already immersed and brought up in American culture. Her mother, Winnie, asks her to attend the engagement party of her cousin Bao-Bao in San Francisco. Upon hearing this command, Pearl feels reluctant, as she barely knows her Chinese family and their traditions. However, she also feels a certain obligation towards her mother and her wishes and she thinks that it would be very inappropriate if she does not show up at a family gathering. So she decides to listen to her mother and go to the engagement party with her family. Two days before the engagement, Winnie calls Pearl up and tells her that one of her Aunts has died and that her funeral is scheduled two days after the engagement party. Winnie requests Pearl to visit the funeral as well as it would look odd if she only attended one of the events in the same week. Pearl feels a certain weight on her shoulders and sets out to San Francisco with her own family.
The Chinese New Year is believed to bring good luck. Before the starting of the New Year, one must come clean with all their secrets so that everything is pure and clean in the environment. In the engagement party, Auntie Helen, who had been the co-owner of the flower shop with Winnie, approaches Pearl. She asks Pearl if Winnie knows about the multiple sclerosis Pearl has been living with for seven years now. Helen adamantly asks Pearl to come clean to Winnie and to tell her the truth before she gets to learn this from someone else. The entire family is aware of the secret except for Winnie and with the Chinese New Year approaching, everyone is feeling burdened with the secret. So, it would not be too long until someone else decides to uncover this secret and that would be too horrible. Winnie needs to know the truth from her own daughter before anyone else tells her and Helen implores Pearl to tell her before someone else does. Helen also emphasizes that she has a horrible tumor and that she did not wish to die from it anytime soon due to the curse of the secret before the New Year. So, if Pearl does not let her mother know about this, Helen would have to inform her. Pearl understands the fact and decides to tell her mother about her seven-year-old secret.
In the funeral of Auntie Du, which is a traditional Buddhist funeral, Pearl finds herself grieving at the loss of her Aunt and also for her father Jimmy Louie, who had died when Pearl was only 14. Winnie also comes to the funeral to pay Du the last visit. Helen, who is also there, approaches Winnie with a letter that carries the news of Winnie’s previous husband, who has died due to cardiac complications. Helen, just like how she had threatened Pearl to spew out all the secrets to her mother, is now threatening Winnie to unveil all the secrets from the past to her daughter before the New Year or else, she might take the lead and tell Pearl herself. Now that Winnie’s ex husband is dead, this would be a good time to tell Pearl the truth and get rid of any superstitious bad luck that might be haunting the family.
From this point onwards, the novel becomes a narrative from Winnie Louie’s perspective. She confronts Pearl and decides to tell her about the past that she had kept safe for so many years now. The chronological approach into unfolding the story is very convenient even for the reader to understand and connect the dots. Winnie begins by telling Pearl that her life had been very hard even before she had come to America. Her mother had abandoned her when Winnie was six and to this day, she never found out why her mother had resented her so much that she left without looking back. Her father, who was a textile factory owner, had also left her and again, it was not clear to her about why she was so easily abandoned at such a young age. She was then forced to live with her Uncle and his two wives and life was still terrible to this point. She always felt like the odd one out, as she never received the love and care that her cousins did. She was then married off to a man named Wen Fu, who was very highly educated and well established but also demanded a huge dowry. Winnie’s father paid the dowry and got his daughter married off but this had not assured a better future for Winnie. The husband was abusive in the relationship and he used to hurt her mentally, physically and emotionally. This was the time of the Second World War and she had to endure her personal struggles along with the global ones that were affecting every individual’s life.
Amongst all this, she developed a friendship with Helen, who she had met through her husband’s boss; Helen was his wife. Winnie clears out at this point that Helen is indeed not a relative but a close friend she had made at a time of great struggle. At the time of her moving to America, she had lied to Pearl that Helen is the wife of her dead brother. Winnie also had to deal with the grief of losing many children; some had died at early ages and some got miscarriages. Things got worse with Wen Fu, who had begun to continuously escalate the level of his abuse on her.
Amongst all this mess, Winnie met Jimmy Louie and found him charming. Thus, love started to bloom. Winnie attempted to divorce Wen Fu but she was arrested after Wen Fu conspired a case against her that enabled law to hold a trial and have her confined in imprisonment for 2 years. This was his way of not letting Winnie go so easily with a divorce and make her suffer as much as possible. Jimmy had to leave for America as he had lost his job as an entrepreneur but he promised Winnie that he would keep in touch with her and he kept on sending her letters during the 2 years span. Auntie Du was the one who had opted for an early release for Winnie from prison by bribing corrupt cops and Winnie was also able to get the signature of Weng Fu on the divorce papers by tricking him. However, infuriated by the actions, Weng Fu had stalked, abused and raped her at gunpoint and taken his revenge on her. Then, Winnie had taken his gun during the commotion and made him walk half naked in the streets at gunpoint. Then, Winnie eloped in fear of Weng Fu. She decided to catch a flight to California in 1949 and meet with Jimmy, leaving Wen Fu behind.
She decided to settle in America and leave the past behind by starting anew with Jimmy. She resented every moment she spent with Wen Fu; it was because of him that she had lost all her life and children. What she had feared to disclose to Pearl, but knew that she had to, is the fact that Weng Fu had raped her before she had managed to escape him and his abusive claws. Ever since Pearl’s birth, she has wondered whether Weng Fu was her father or not and if Pearl had somehow inherited the psychotic traits of Weng Fu. Because Pearl held so many similarities with all the other siblings who had died, Winnie had felt that the truth is too bitter for her to face. At the end of the narrative, after Winnie comes clear to Pearl about everything that she had hid for so many years, Pearl decides to tell her mother about the multiple sclerosis she had been living with for 7 years. Helen, who had pushed both the mother and daughter, only wanted no secrets amongst family now that the time is right and Weng Fu has died, so the New Year could start off anew for everyone. She also informs the duo that she is going to China so Pearl and her mother could tag along for healing, both for the sclerosis and for themselves.