One novel with Tan’s masterful storytelling and a bucket of tears had me swearing that this is one of the books that an adult woman should try to read in her lifetime. And given the numerous types of written candy (attractive wrapping and no nourishment) that thrive these days, the bar Tan has raised for telling a good story is quite hard to achieve.
I lived on literary nourishment for five days with a woman’s voice that’s so strong and rich with cultural nuances. I read The Joy Luck Club some years back and I failed to appreciate it for what it had. But reading The Kitchen God’s Wife at this phase of life is really quite an experience. As I was leafing initially through the pages, I thought that the book reviews by the preliminary pages were exaggerated; they were not. In fact, their most brilliant descriptions fail to describe how good this novel is.
It was as if Weiwei-ah (English name Winnie) is right beside me, narrating the events during the Second World War from her perspective, the innumerable forms of abuse she has endured in her role as domestic slave to her crazy first husband, and the incorporation of superstition and destiny in the tale that touched my heart and affected my mind.
The way Tan describes the inner struggles in a character’s mind gives it so much life, so much passion, and so much insight to the reader. And even when she shifts from one character to another, this voice is so strong and so imminent. Here’s an example:
“Of course, Mary was only trying to be kind. I admit that it was more my fault that our friendship became strained. I never told her directly how much her gestures of sympathy offended me. So of course she couldn’t have known that I did not need someone to comfort me. I did not want to be coddled by casseroles. Kindness was compensation. Kindness was a reminder that my life had changed, was always changing, that people thought I should just accept all this and become strong or brave, more enlightened, more peaceful.”
She proceeds to describe Pearl’s situation with more detail, with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, drawing out the emotions with the same therapeutic effect.
“I wanted nothing to do with that. Instead, I wanted to live my life with the same focus as most people—to worry about my children’s education, but not whether I would be around to see them graduate, to rejoice that I had lost five pounds, and not be fearful that my muscle mass was eroding away. I wanted what had become impossible: I wanted to forget. “
It is very apparent that there is a very minimal male participation among the characters. Either they are benevolent or tolerant husbands or portrayed as an extreme evil in the woven tales spanning two or three generations of women. It really shows how much depth Tan has studied the nature of women, and Chinese women who migrated to the US, at that. There things in history that flew in the course of the novel but had sufficient detail to make you imagine the plague, the epidemic, the harsh living conditions. You can smell and taste the texture of war time with her prose. If comparing it to other novels I’ve read that depict the time of war, I think this was most emotionally affecting for me because the backdrop of wartime is interspersed with an Oriental woman’s soul. I am not Chinese but it was as if the curtain has been lifted momentarily in this novel so that I can see to the very core what being a Chinese woman means at the time of war and at the time of moving to foreign places.
I thought that the book was about cooking but it was not. It was something else. It did not satisfy or provide a feast for gastronomic sense but it satiated me in a different way, in a way that I like, in a way that makes me fully convinced that this reading hobby is worth all the eye circles for.