The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan

The good thing about being stuck at home during the Coronapocalypse is that I’ve got all the time in the world to read. I read a lot the way it is, but this past week I’ve been flying through one book after another, the most recent of those being The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan. Here’s my (spoiler-free) review.

Let’s be real: anything by Amy Tan is fabulous. The stars are of her stories are always women — and complex women, at that. Actually, I was shocked recently to learn that Tan has dealt with a lot of criticism about the way she portrays her Chinese characters (so, almost all of them). I guess the complaint is that she paints Chinese men in a bad light, and that she fails to capture the experience of being Chinese, since she is herself American-born. While there may be some truth to those criticisms, it seems to me that Tan’s perspective as a Chinese American is equally important; after all, I’m sure being Chinese American is a very different experience than being purely Chinese, and the writing world grows all the more richer with every unique perspective added to it. I read also that Tan draws on tired stereotypes of Chinese culture, but I found her portrayal of strong Chinese women to be exactly the opposite: a breath of fresh air. I suppose you can’t please everyone.

I highly recommend this novel for two main reasons (both of which I’ll expound upon): its beautiful story of mother-daughter dynamics and its gripping rendering of not only the post-immigrant experience, but the worlds that immigrants must often leave behind, for better or for worse.

A quick synopsis: Pearl Louie Brandt and her mother, Winnie Louie, both harbor some secrets. Having immigrated from China many years earlier, Winnie now lives in California and runs a floral shop with her long-time friend, Helen, also an immigrant. We see right away that Pearl and her mother have a strained relationship, part of which is due to Pearl identifying as more American than Chinese and her inability to understand why her mother is the way she is. Thanks to Auntie Helen, though, the secrets begin to come out, and Pearl is in for a story she never could have imagined.

While most of The Kitchen God’s Wife centers around the story of Winnie Louie, it is far more than one woman’s story. In fact, Winnie tells us her story at the same time that she shares it with her adult daughter — for the very first time. Because I want this review to remain as spoiler-free as possible, I won’t explain the circumstances in which Winnie tells her story to her daughter, Pearl. What I will say, though, is that both Pearl and Winnie hold secrets, and it’s in trusting one another with those secrets that their relationship as mother and daughter blossoms. The Kitchen God’s Wife features a whole host of kick-ass female characters, and it becomes apparent that this strength has been passed down with each generation of daughters, whether they identify as Chinese, American, or something in-between.

While the novel begins with Pearl, we soon come to realize that the larger story centers around Winnie, her mother. And Winnie’s story is absolutely incredible — get ready to be clenching your fists in anger one moment and reaching for the tissues the next. Tan takes on some tough subject matter in this book, so if you’re easily bothered by themes of domestic and sexual abuse, read it with caution. While the narrative is not particularly graphic, the matter-of-fact way that Winnie relates her story is almost more heart-wrenching than explicit detail as we see how horrendous circumstances had become simply a matter of everyday life. Through the tragedies she endures and the way she responds to the many injustices she is forced to face, we (and along with us, Pearl) see Winnie Louie for the unbelievably resilient woman she is. The superstitions and traditions that Pearl has written off as antiquated come to bear a whole new meaning in light of what we (and she) learn about Winnie.

I’m a fifth-generation Nebraskan. Although my family has held tight to the stories and sayings passed down by our ancestors who arrived on the prairie from Sweden and Germany, I will never know what it’s like to have a parent from an entirely different culture. To some extent, everyone faces the same sorts of struggles with their parents; on the other hand, I think there’s no denying that someone like Pearl Louie Brandt (or Amy Tan, while we’re at it) faces quite a different experience in addition to these universal family dynamics. Being someone who’s interested in multicultural heritage and as an immigrant myself, I’ve read plenty of books about the immigrant experience. This book, though, does a beautiful job not only of portraying Winnie’s experience as an immigrant, but of showing the way that experience seeps down through the generations, strengthening bonds and enriching lives. I can’t help but think that Tan, for all the criticism she’s received, writes to make sense of her own experience in the world, and not for the comfort of anyone else, which, honestly, I think is terrific.

So, if you’re looking for a heart-warming story to read while you’re stuck at home these days, The Kitchen God’s Wife won’t disappoint. Your mom will be happy, too, since I promise you’ll be reaching for the phone to call her as soon as you finish it.

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