Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives! If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.
Pearl has been keeping a secret from her mother, Winnie. She was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy and is trying to avoid the fuss she is sure her mother will make by not telling her as long as she is mobile. She is dismayed, then, to learn that her cousin Mary has told her own mother, Helen, Winnie’s best friend.
At a family engagement party, Helen tells Pearl that she has a brain tumor. She says she’s sure she is going to die and doesn’t want to go keeping secrets, so she will tell Winnie Pearl’s secret unless Pearl does.
When the two women sit down to talk, it turns out Winnie has secrets, too—a whole life before she came to San Francisco from China and another marriage before her marriage to Jimmie Louie. Winnie’s story makes up the bulk of the novel.
Winnie’s unhappy life begins when she is six and her mother leaves. She never finds out what became of her mother, but Winnie herself is banished from her wealthy father’s house to be raised by aunts. In her aunts’ home, she is given a lower status than her cousins. This even applies to her marriage. She acts as a go-between for her cousin Peanut and Peanut’s suitor, Wen Fu, and then is surprised when Wen Fu asks for her own hand. But she learns later that her aunts have deemed Wen Fu’s family not good enough for Peanut.
And they are not good. They strip Winnie of all her possessions and sell them. Once she sees what they are, she manages to hide away a dozen sets of silver chopsticks. Those are the only things she is able to keep. Worse, Wen Fu is physically and sexually brutal. Along with these difficulties and Winnie’s lack of rights are the hardships imposed by the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II.
The difficulties between Winnie and Pearl and those between Winnie and Helen serve as the framing of the story set in the past. It is this story that is most interesting, even though I never really warmed up to Winnie. What I found most interesting in this novel were the ways of thinking and the customs of pre-revolutionary China.
What does this book say about wives or the experience of being a wife?
Three marriages are described in this novel, but the most time is that spent on Winnie and Wen Fu. This is a classic abusive relationship, where Wen Fu rapes and terrorizes Winnie, including putting a gun to her head, and Winnie thinks it is her fault. The novel focuses on Winnie’s growth of understanding—that her marriage is different than others’ marriages, that she can stand up for herself by leaving. (Her other attempts to stand up for herself are disastrous.)
There is much less focus on the marriage of Pearl and Phil. We learn that they have tacitly taken the easy way on things, that is, not much confrontation or arguing, partially because of Pearl’s disease. Pearl knows, for example, that Phil disapproves of how easy she is on her girls, but it is important for her to avoid stress. All-in-all, they seem to have a good marriage with the usual minor disagreements, like whether they have to attend her cousin’s engagement party.
The marriage between Winnie and Jimmie is the least explored, as Jimmie is long dead in the present-day story, but it seems to have been a happy one. At the beginning of the novel, Winnie is hurt that Pearl has never seemed to grieve for Jimmy. She doesn’t realize that Pearl’s teenage anger was an expression of her grief. Winnie seems to nearly hero-worship Jimmie, but of course compared to Wen Fu he was an angel.
In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?
This is always the hardest question for me, because unless an author is writing an allegory, nothing about a character should define a whole category of people. Maybe we can say here that as a young girl and according to her culture, Winnie believes that a wife is ruled by her husband. She is naive enough about sex to not realize that some of the things Wen Fu wants to do are not normal practices. So, Winnie suffers, I think, because of a lack of rights for women in China at the time but also because of what her culture and upbringing have taught her—and have not taught her.
The title of the novel speaks to this question. The Kitchen God was a man who left his wife for another woman and then lost everything. When he was a poor, sick man, his wife took him in. After his death, he was rewarded for repenting by being made a minor god. Winnie expresses her disgust for the notion that the husband was rewarded for his bad behavior while the wife’s name was not even passed down in the legend. This is a notion she has had to develop as her notions of marriage change and she develops her own ideas of how women should live.