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The Kitchen God's Wife

The Kitchen God's Wife - Amy Tan I've been a fan of Amy Tan's writings since I first read The Joy Luck Club. While her books tend to focus on China and the lives of Chinese immigrants, their focus on the complex relationships between mothers and daughters is universal, and I've given some of her books to my mother to read after I've finished with them. Why, then, did I have no recollection of ever reading The Kitchen God's Wife when I know that I've had it for years?::: Mother? Check. Daughter? Check. Chinese Background? Check. :::Tan's books almost always have a plot that centers around a Chinese-American daughter and her immigrant mother, in this case, Pearl and her mother Winnie. As with many of Tan's mother-daughter teams, Winnie was widowed when Pearl was fairly young, which serves to narrow the focus of the relationship. As The Kitchen God's Wife opens, Pearl is heading to yet another engagement party for her cousin, Bao-Bao, who is actually a close family friend. She doesn't want to go because of the complicated history with many of the parties involved, particularly her "cousin" Mary, who knows the secret that Pearl hasn't told her mother: Pearl has multiple sclerosis (MS). Mary and Pearl had been best friends until Mary confided Pearl's secret to her mother, Helen, and as the family gathering transpires, Helen threatens to tell Winnie about Pearl's MS unless Pearl does it herself first.A funeral for Helen's aunt, who was actually closer to Winnie, coincides with the timing of the engagement party, and lets loose a storm of emotions in Pearl, leading up to the conversation with her mother where she tells her of her MS. Unbeknownst to Pearl, however, Helen has also pushed Winnie to reveal her own secrets, and so the middle section of the book begins.Winnie and Helen weren't actually sisters-in-law, as they had often claimed. Winnie was actually the daughter of one of her father's several wives, and was farmed off to poorer relations after her mother ran off with no explanation. A marriage was arranged for Winnie that looked promising, but her husband turned out to be a nightmare: cruel and even sadistic in the bedroom, a coward in the military, and both feared and sought after by his comrades. Winnie and her husband are moved from military base to military base, finally fleeing to a remote village as World War II progresses. Time after time, Winnie is traumatized by her husband's actions, and loses child after child, some stillborn, some to infant illnesses. Her only friend is her husband's commanding officer's wife, who we learn to be Helen.When Winnie meets the Chinese-American officer Jimmy at a military dance, she learns that all men aren't like her husband, and is left at a crossroads. We already know that Jimmy was the husband who widowed her, but the mystery of how she left her husband and China and sponsored Helen is the story she reveals to Pearl.::: Cross the Ts and Dot the Is, and Voila! It's Done! :::For some reason, this is my least favorite of all Tan's books. The story seems completely formulaic, and lacks any sort of transition between the present story of Pearl and Winnie and the past history of Winnie and Helen. Where The Bonesetter's Daughter had the plot device of a mother with Alzheimer's memoirs being translated and read, the matching mother-daughter secrets and the "aunt" feigning a possible brain tumor to bring them together seems forced.Tan's daughters are usually middle-aged and full of angst for one reason or another, but Pearl is the most shallowly-drawn of them all. I never felt any attachment to her, as I've done with Tan's other daughters, and honestly, wanted to slap her most of the time she appeared in the book. Rather than seeming stoic and reserved with her diagnosis and her mother, she seemed whiny and petulant, and her sudden hatred of her former best friend over something so silly as her friend's ignorance of the right thing to say with regard to Pearl's MS seems petty. Rather than sitting down with her friend and having a heart-to-heart, as you'd expect friends who've grown up together their entire lives would, Pearl just cuts her off with annoyance.Tan has written some compelling stories of mothers and daughters, but when the character development is thin and the story jumps around, what was a wonderful common theme becomes formulaic. The mythology of the Kitchen God seems shoehorned into the story, and doesn't make a great deal of sense, even though the symbolism is supposed to apply to Winnie's story. The Kitchen God's Wife feels like a novel that was cranked out under a contract deadline, and lacks the feeling and compassion of Tan's other novels. It can definitely be missed.This review originally published on Epinions:

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