Originally published in 1991, Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife gives us (well, at least me) more of what we loved from The Joy Luck Club: a story in which a mother reveals a hidden life of hardship in China to her daughter. While the book opens on Winnie Louie’s daughter and the misunderstandings that are souring the mother-daughter relationship, the majority of the book is Winnie’s story.
Jiang Weili (later Winnie) has always been worried about luck and chance. Considering the first third of her life, this isn’t surprising. Her mother ran away when Weili was young, leaving her to the less-than-kind care of her relatives. Weili makes the best of things. She learns to be polite. She learns to make do with what she can get from her aunts. As Weili tells her own daughter her story, she frequently hints that even though her life was lonely, things got much worse when she married her first husband, Wen Fu.
Life would have been hard for Weili even without her changeable, violent, and rapacious husband. Shortly after her marriage, the Japanese Army begins to invade the rest of China. Wen Fu joins the nascent Kuomintang air force (which ends up being a disaster) and the young couple spend a lot of time fleeing the Japanese advance. Weili and her friend, Hulan, barely escape Nanking in time. So, just when you think things are as bad as they’re going to get, they get even worse. Wen Fu is injured in a car accident (that he caused) and any inhibitions he had that were controlling his impulses are gone. Because the novel opens with Winnie and her second family in California, we know that she will somehow escape Wen Fu. We just don’t know how. Even with the frame, there were times when I wondered just how she would manage it; Wen Fu is so tenacious that it seems impossible to get away.
What interested me most about Weili/Winnie’s character was how these experiences shaped her as a woman. She often thinks back along a chain of decisions and events from a death or disaster or illness back to a time when she might have been able to avert the bad luck. If she had been able to control her cousin better, she wouldn’t have met Wen Fu. If she hadn’t agreed to be a go-between for Wen Fu and her husband, Wen Fu wouldn’t have gotten involved with her family. If she had spoken up when Wen Fu’s mother actually proposed to have her son marry Weili, she would have avoided a lot of misery. I’ve seen this thinking before from the other side, where people find the silver lining from an initial bad decision. Weili just has bad luck and more bad luck. Now that she’s older, Weili is quietly fixated on improving her family’s luck by adhering to old superstitions and a mix of Chinese religious practices.
Having read The Joy Luck Club, with its remarkable balance of mothers and daughters and all their stories, The Kitchen God’s Wife does feel like an extra dose of the same. I enjoyed the novel anyway, mostly because I admired how Weili was able to endure everything her family and husband threw at her before finding the courage to escape.