The Kitchen God's Wife
|The Kitchen God's Wife|
|Publisher||Putnam Publishing Group|
The Kitchen God's Wife opens with the narrative voice of Pearl Louie Brandt, the American-born daughter of a Chinese mother and a Chinese-American father, who is a speech therapist living in San Jose, California. Pearl's mother, Winnie Louie, has called Pearl to request that she and her family attend the engagement party of Pearl's cousin Bao-Bao in San Francisco. Pearl is reluctant to oblige her mother, since she is more involved in her American identity. Nevertheless, she feels an obligation to attend the family festivities.
Then, two days before the engagement party, Pearl receives another call from her mother telling her that Auntie Du has died and that the funeral will be arranged for the day after the engagement party. With these obligations on her shoulders, Pearl sets out for San Francisco with her young daughters, Tessa and Cleo, and her husband.
Upon Pearl's return home, her Auntie Helen, Bao-Bao's mother, who co-owns a florist shop with Winnie, makes a demand: she insists that Pearl must tell Winnie that she has multiple sclerosis, about which everyone else in the family knows. Helen claims that she is suffering from a malignant brain tumor and does not want to die knowing that Winnie is unaware of her daughter's illness. Helen adds that if Pearl will not tell Winnie the truth, she will do it herself.
Later, Helen tells Winnie that she must unveil the truth of her past to Pearl because she cannot go to her grave with such secrets. The reader later learns that Helen knows her tumor is benign and is using the threat of her own imminent death as a pretext to force mother and daughter to be honest with one another.
At this point, the novel switches to the narrative voice of Winnie Louie, who tells the story of her past to Pearl. Before reaching the United States, Winnie experienced much turmoil, strife, and suffering. She was abandoned by her mother, a lesser wife of her father, as a young child, and did not fully understand her mother's mysterious disappearance. Winnie, whose Chinese name is Weili, was forced to live with her Uncle and his two wives (New Aunt and Old Aunt) and never felt as loved as her uncle's true daughter, Weili's cousin, Peanut. Nevertheless, when the time came, Winnie's aunts arranged a traditional marriage for her, and her father provided a large dowry, since he was an educated and well-established man.
The marriage to Wen Fu, who first courted Peanut but transferred his attentions to Weili when he learned of her father's wealth, turned out to be a disaster. Wen Fu was horrifically abusive — physically, mentally, and emotionally, and Weili suffered while also surviving World War II. Weili lost many children along the way, some to early deaths, one that was stillborn, an infant daughter who was corporally abused and emotionally traumatized by Wen Fu and his violence, and one son that she sent away to escape Wen-Fu, who eventually died from a flea epidemic at the age of 6. Throughout the novel, Winnie does many things behind the scenes that her husband takes credit for, and she likens her situation to a Chinese fable about a man who was horrible to his wife no matter how much she did for him, and yet still became known as "the Kitchen god".
It was during the War that Weili became friends with Helen, (Chinese: Hulan). Winnie reveals that they were never really in-laws, but only friends. After Weili married Pearl's Chinese-American father, Jimmy Louie, moved to the United States, and took the name Winnie, she lied to sponsor Helen's immigration.
Pearl has always been told that Jimmy Louie was her father. He was a good husband, a good father, and a minister in the Chinese Baptist Church, but he died when Pearl was a teenager, a time when Pearl became very angry. Winnie explains to Pearl that she met Jimmy Louie in China, at an American military dance. He was extremely kind and the person who gave all of the Chinese girls attending the dance their "American" names; the two fell in love, and Jimmy began to help her escape her tortured marriage. In Chinese culture, in order to obtain a divorce, the paper had to be signed by two witnesses and Grand Auntie Du and Hulan agreed to sign. Wen-Fu had previously ripped up the papers from her first attempt, and Winnie went to him again to get the papers signed. The greatest secret, however, is that at that last meeting Wen Fu raped her. After receiving notification from China of Wen-Fu's death, Winnie explains that it is only now that she feels truly free of his wickedness and threats. Thinking she is informing Helen of a secret, she states that she has always tried to love Pearl more because she thought she might have been Wen-Fu's daughter, not only when looking into Pearls' face as a child and seeing how much she looked like the little boy who she'd lost in China; but especially when she saw how angry Pearl had become after her Jimmy's death. Helen surprises her by telling her that she always knew about the rape because of the way she arrived home after meeting with Wen-Fu.
After Winnie tells her story, Pearl reveals the secret of her disease. By the time the wedding of Bao-Bao comes around, mother and daughter have come to know each other better. Winnie goes into a local shop finds an altar with an unnamed goddess. The shopkeeper gives it to her for halfprice because it is considered bad luck. Winnie names it "Lady Sorrowfree" the wife of the Kitchen god, who has endured all, received no credit for the work she has done, and is still strong. At the end of the novel, Helen reveals that she is planning a trip to China, with Pearl, and Winnie.