Amy Tan, The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991)

The Kitchen God’s Wife was a perfect read for summer vacation: on the longish side, but easy to read in large chunks, with lots of vibrant characters and back stories and twists and turns, emotional moments, small history within the Big History, family secrets, lots of tears and a happy ending.

Memorable it probably isn’t (I’d read Amy Tan before but what title and what story sort of escape me), but I was delighted to spend hours with this book in my spare moments, tucked in the wooden bedroom of our Czech barn, overlooking cereal fields and plum and apple orchards.

The book is told first by Pearl Brandt, a Chinese-American living in California, a rather banal mother of 2, who by a complicated turn of events discovers the story of her own mother, Winnie Louie, born in China and emigrated to the US just before the arrival of the Communists in 1949. Most of the action is set in China from the 1920s to the 1940s, and told by Winnie herself, with a typical old-Chinese-woman voice that I found really endearing in her bickering-mama sort of way.

I won’t go over the tale of misery and oppression of Chinese old society against women, because many Chinese tear-jerkers are not very different (I’m thinking Ba Jin’s Family or many other novels that focus on hard times). But it made me realize how a common base makes for very different books: Winnie suffered against the feudal, patriarchal system and found her way out to emigrate to the US, while Chinese novels use the same sufferings to justify a political and/or social revolution.

It strikes me as a very American novel because basically Winnie turns her back away from the old world where she was nothing to become someone and start anew. So anew actually that she has kept silent about her past and that her adult child doesn’t really know her at all (until the providential heart-warming happy-ending, that is). And for the reader it is an enlightening experience (especially if you know little about early 20C Chinese history and society), but still quite comfortable because you see it from a distance and from the safety of a more modern and peaceful society, knowing that Winnie has survived it all.

Quite a nice read for summer, but now that I’m back and that fall lurks around the corner, I’ll be looking for something a bit more biting and will probably turn toward Chinese literature that always keeps quite an unflinching, unromantic eye to describe hardships and quandaries.


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