Monday, December 7, 2015

Literary Wives #18

The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan
I fully admit there is no way I can truly comprehend the abuse heaped upon females in the "feudal" or "olden" times. I am rather certain I would not have lived long...and hopefully, I would have managed to take out a few of the meaner males along with me! :) I'm pretty sure that would have become my over-riding goal! One of the things that keeps striking me is that no woman had any control over anything in her life, not really. No control over sex! When you had it or with whom! If a man wanted it, he got it, purely and simply! There was no such concept as "consensual" sex. And to compound this, no birth control, nor any thought of the concept of 'birth control.' Hence Wen Fu was able to torture his wife by impregnating her although she continued to miscarry every time. It's a wonder she lived through the physical abuse, as well as the emotional/verbal abuse. Wen Fu was evil incarnate. A man, the likes of whom, any female hopes never to know, let alone to become his wife.  

Be sure to check out the other co-hosting bloggers' reviews: 
Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J
Naomi of Consumed by Ink
Kay of whatmeread
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Pearl begins this book with a broad description of her own marriage relationship with Phil: 
Image result for the kitchen god's wife amy tan cover imageWhen we were first married, Phil used to say that I was driven by blind devotion to fear and guilt. I would counter that he was selfish, that the things one had to do in life sometimes had nothing to do with what was fun or convenient. And then he would say the only reason we had to go [visit my family] was that I had been manipulated into thinking I had no choice, and that I was doing the same thing to him. And then our first baby, Tessa, came along, and a year later my illness was diagnosed. The shape of our arguments changed. We no longer fought self-righteously over the philosophical differences concerning individual choice, perhaps because Phil developed a sense of duty toward the baby, as well as to me, or at least to my medical condition. So the whole issue of individual choice became tricky, a burden to keep up, until it fell away... (15)
In returning to the places I've marked in this book to compose a review, I realize that in many ways this single portion of a paragraph and the story contained within the first 75 pages or so is juxtaposed to the remaining 335 pages or so of the book! We begin with Pearl and Phil who seemingly have a rather normal marriage in the U.S., except for the fact that Pearl is dealing with chronic illness, and that would, by its very nature, change the dynamics of the husband-wife relationship, I am certain. Pearl continues,
...I'm not really sure why I still give in to my family obligations. While I would never admit this to Phil, I've come to resent the duty. I'm not looking forward to seeing the Kwongs, especially Mary. And whenever I'm with my mother, I feel as though I have to spend the whole time avoiding land mines. (16)
I could relate to this last line regarding her mother. By my mid-twenties, I did my best NOT to discuss anything personal with my mother. Why? Because she would launch into "lecture" mode and I would hear every single nuance of my behavior, thoughts, and attitudes that was wrong, simply wrong! Never was there any acknowledgement of a job well done, just critical essays of my many shortcomings. I believe Pearl felt communication with her mother was much the same...and, of course, Pearl's mother, "Winnie," knew nothing of the illness. I could understand Pearl's reluctance to confess this to her mother, fearing that she would never 'hear the end of it' once Winnie knew...

The bulk of this book is Winnie's story of her life in China, before coming to the U.S. in her late twenties. We also learn about 'Helen'/Hulan and Auntie Du/Grand Auntie who followed her to the U.S., and so many others who remained in China but played pivotal roles in Winnie's life. Polygamy was the name of the game, with men housing as many wives as they could afford, in addition to concubines, etc. Homes were not just multi-generational, but also contained multi-nuclear families with one common male figurehead. By Winnie divulging her own personal history to her daughter, Pearl, her actions, behaviors, and attitudes become much more understandable, as a natural outgrowth of the various and multiple abuses she had suffered throughout her lifetime. 

Perhaps more than anything, this book is about "secrets." Secrets kept from one another as 'best friends,' relatives, mother-daughter, husband-wife, father-child, etc. Along with secrets are lies, for many times, one must lie to another in order to keep personal knowledge hidden. Winnie endured her father sending her away to his brother's home once her own mother 'disappeared.' Of course, there was bribery involved, in that the brother was given a factory and other income-producing gifts. Then she was married off to a man and his family known to be volatile, with unethical and immoral business practices as well as his own personal behaviors. There was nothing but betrayal and exploitation in Winnie's life while in China, with what little satisfaction and achievement she could accomplish given her lack of control of most aspects of her life. I believe Winnie embodied a similar 'fight' that her mother probably displayed in her own life, and that is what prompted her mother to abandon Winnie. Winnie realized her powerlessness in the Chinese society, but there was little she could do to 'fight back.' It is only at the end of the book that Helen's secret is revealed and we realize the extent of her foresight and ultimate loyalty in lying and keeping secrets! 

As Pearl describes her mother:
To this day it drives me crazy, listening to her various hypotheses, the way religion, medicine, and superstition all merge with their own beliefs. She puts no faith in other peoples' logic--to her, logic is a sneaky excuse for tragedies, mistakes, and accidents. And according to my mother, nothing is an accident. (29)
It would be difficult to be either Pearl or her mother, wouldn't it? Winnie emigrates to the U.S. and a totally different culture, from one based upon superstitious negativity and fear, to one that is in many ways more 'enlightened,' where her own beliefs have long been abandoned. It would be so difficult! Then to be the first-generation U.S.-born children of immigrants would prove so challenging, trying to fit into U.S. culture while dealing with your own parents, whom you truly don't understand based upon your current environment. But once Winnie's history is known, it is easier to understand her amalgam of personal beliefs. And this brings me to a subject I have been pondering as of late. I think each of us should record our own autobiography for the sake of our offspring and/or other relatives. Our individual understandings of life should be written for others to learn more about us. I have begun this process so that although my sons and I have little time for 'personal revelations,' there would be a way for them to truly know who I am. I feel few adults truly know who there parents are or were. Perhaps I am more sensitive to this now in the aftermath of my own mother's death and the revelations that have followed. I would like my own children to have a frame of reference when they think of me without needing to guess about everything. But I digress...

On to the two questions we always consider with each Literary Wives read: 

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?
The experience of being a wife in China during Winnie's early adulthood was horrific. It totally depended upon the man to whom your family literally "sold" you. (And this was set in the 20th Century!) Wen Fu was such an evil and volatile person, he intimidated other males to yield to his will, regardless of the logic or humanity or lack thereof. As in the case of his own daughter, whom he willingly allowed to die, even controlling the doctor who wanted to treat the child when it might have been enough to save her life. He was a monster, purely and simply, and no one could truly help her. There were no safety nets available to her, until she did finally discover a woman who was providing protection and help to other females in similarly abusive relationships, but then her 'best friend' betrayed her and she was right back where she started and treated even worse, if that is possible... The experience of being a wife in these times in China was unbelievable to me. Winnie's treatment was abysmal by any standards, in my opinion. A female's experience as a wife was totally dependent upon the male who was your husband, period. No one would ever try to help you and if you were smart enough to figure out you were powerless and you should not be treated in this way, as Winnie did, there was still nobody to help you. It was definitely a no-win situation. Though I was proud that Winnie did find some small ways to thwart her husband and mother-in-law--they were petty but provided her some small satisfaction. 

2. In what way does this woman define "wife"--or in what way is she defined by "wife"?
A woman was totally defined by her role as "wife" in this Chinese society/culture. There was little to no provision for a woman to express herself or be her own person. Her role and her life as an adult were strictly defined by her husband. Even Helen, whose marriage appeared to be a shining juxtaposition to Winnie's abusive relationship, had her own disappointments with which to deal. This beautifully depicted the fact that although our relationships may appear to others to be happy and fulfilling, we all deal with our own relationship is 'perfect' since we are humans and by definition, we are imperfect, especially in our interactions with each other! There was, of course, no realistically self-supporting job provided to a "single" woman in China at this time. If you were an adult female you had better be married, 'cause there was no vocation other than prostitution open to you. This was quite depressing overall as I read, though I admit I loved knowing that Winnie did finally discover "true love." Awwww...

All in all, this book definitely makes me appreciate the time and place 
into which I have been born! At least for this lifetime! 
Have you read this book? What else would you contribute in a review?
Feel free to include your thoughts in the comments below!
Or have you read any other of Amy Tan's books? 
I am currently reading The Joy Luck Club and 
I am amazed at the way superstition is the basis of belief.

A Circle of Wives
We will be reading and reviewing A Circle of Wives by Alice LaPlante in February 2016!


  1. Nice review! Your exploration of abuse and marriage reminded me of a podcast I heard a few weeks ago about a woman who stopped speaking to her husband for some 20 years before he died because he had cheated on her and abused her. She refused to engage with it, and in her own way, her silence became a way of fighting back. It was fascinating!

    1. Wow...I can't imagine using "silence" as a weapon. I'm relatively certain I would be incapable of that! LOL :) I felt so very sorry for Winnie and virtually all the women in that culture/society. :(

  2. The biggest question I have about all the secrets is why Winnie didn't want to tell her children about her past. Obviously, she wouldn't have wanted to get into the gory details, but I don't think they knew anything about her previous marriage, did they? She was probably trying to protect them somehow, but in the end, I think, Pearl appreciates knowing the story and finds she can understand her mother more, and some of her ways that used to perplex her.
    I agree with Emily - nice review!

    1. Yes, but I think Winnie was continuing in the "Chinese way" of not revealing the truth and just dealing with whatever was currently in your world. At least that's how I interpreted it. Plus, as your children age, the dynamics of the relationship shift and change somewhat. And really, there never seems to be enough time with my own sons. They're all busy working and raising children, and dealing with their own marital relationships. In talking with friends, I think this is more the norm than not? It just seems difficult to be able to discuss all you would like to discuss. :) I was so happy Winnie and Pearl finally connected in this way! :)