Amy Tan has carved out a place for herself in the literature market. Her books are soulful, and speciallize in that area of the brain that needs comforting and feeling good. Working with her Chinese heritage, she tells stories about modern women in a world where cultures and emotions clash and where both sides are right.
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The setting for the story starts with modern day San Francisco, where the American-Chinese community has thrived, with their own customs and stories. Pearl has done her best to assimilate into American society, with two little girls, a handsome doctor-husband, and a modern life with a career. But things are not that good on two fronts -- namely with her own health, and with her mother, Winnie. Pearl is dreading telling her mother that she's been diagnosed with MS for fear of the ensuing drama that will come roaring through her life.
Winnie Kwong is a busybody, pushy, cheap mother. She spoils her grandchildren, and bullies her daughter, and with her friend, Auntie Helen, run a delapidated flower shop. Pearl is more than happy to stay out of her mother's orbit -- until the funeral of Great Auntie Du and the engagement party for cousin Bao-bao -- well, Pearl has to go, there's no way that she can get out of it this time.
Family secrets are revealed, and the main part of the novel is taken up with the remarkable story of Winnie Kwong, and her life before she came to America. The product of an unhappy marriage, Winnie finds herself shuttled off to relatives, who are none too glad to see her. Winnie spends a miserable childhood, coping with sneers and being ignored, while her glamourous cousin Peanut, who has the goodies in life. Winnie dreams of revenge, of finally being able to turn her back on her hateful family, and having the life she's always dreamed of.
It's not that easy. China is in the throes of revolution, and the clash between the Chinese and Japan is just starting up. How she survives, and her marriage to a brutal man is resolved is a tale of luck, determination, and finally, of strange coincidences. It can be viewed as a fairy tale, a lie, or a survivor's story; that choice is up to the reader.
Amy Tan's writing is a bit on the simplistic side, but also very vivid and evocative. She doesn't hold back on tweaking the emotional heartstrings either, and while some deplore that sort of writing, I didn't mind it at all. We get to know Winnie, Helen and Pearl in loving detail, with all of the heartaches, good times, and the bad, and while I did get annoyed with Winnie's passiveness at times, it's not a bad read at all.
What I enjoyed the most about this were the many details of life, both as a Chinese-American immigrant, and also of a China in turmoil. Legends, fables, secrets, and connections are gently pried out, and woven into the story, all done without it seeming too contrived. It's one of those stories that is best enjoyed on a long weekend, where the reader can immerse themselves, and perhaps sniffle into their handkerchief a time or two.
Fans of a feel-good story will enjoy it, and the ending is a positive one, which at the time, I really needed. This was the second novel that Tan published, after the very popular Joy Luck Club.
The Kitchen God's Wife
1991; Ivy Books, Ballentine Books
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