Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799
The Kitchen God’s Wife is about a mother and daughter who have mutually reinforcing secrets. Their inability to communicate is based partially on their different backgrounds. The mother was reared in China and emigrated to California later in life, while her daughter was born and reared in the United States. In the beginning, the story is told by the daughter, Pearl, who has informed everyone but her mother that she has multiple sclerosis. Pearl is afraid that her mother, Winnie, will get overexcited by the news. Pearl feels especially guilty about covering up the information because she believes that her mother would never hide anything from her.
Most of the story, however, is given in the voice of the mother, whose Chinese name is Jiang Weili (in Chinese, the family name is given first). Out of an unrealistic fear of her former husband Wen Fu’s reappearance—especially unrealistic since he is in China and she in California—Weili has never told her daughter anything but generalities about her first marriage. Now that Wen Fu has died, she tells her story, in the process revealing certain long-veiled circumstances of Pearl’s nativity.
When Weili is six years old, her mother deserts the family, bringing shame on the house. Weili is sent to live in her uncle’s residence so that she will not be a constant reminder of her mother’s betrayal. In her new home, she plays second fiddle to her uncle’s children, which is particularly galling in relation to Peanut, the daughter, who is Weili’s junior by a year. Thus, Weili jumps at the chance to marry Wen Fu, a local boy who begins by romancing Peanut but who switches matrimonial targets when he learns that Weili is from the richer branch of the family.
At the time of the couple’s marriage, China is in a skirmishing war with Japan, and the newlyweds pack off to live at the Chinese Air Force Academy, where Wen Fu is a pilot. As she lives with him, Weili comes to understand her husband’s perversity. With his friends, he is quick-witted, generous, brash, and gutsy. To his wife, he is cruel, spiteful, and overdemanding sexually. Moreover, he is a coward who turns tail whenever the other fighter pilots fly into combat. Perhaps as a compensation for his increasingly ill-concealed derelictions of duty, he plays the bully with his wife. He takes possession of some of her personal savings and wastes them, and he begins to flaunt his extramarital affairs, to the point of moving his mistresses into the house. These actions do not merely personally affront Weili; since the couple must share their housing with another married couple, they also cause her to lose face.
The rapid deterioration of their marriage takes place against the backdrop of China’s collapsing defense against a Japanese invasion. Wen Fu’s air force unit repeatedly relocates, moving deeper into China’s interior as the Japanese blitzkrieg continues. Meanwhile, new personal disasters harden the marriage partners’ hearts against each other. Wen Fu loses an eye in a jeep mishap and so loses both his looks and the status of being a pilot. Weili loses the last vestiges of feeling for her spouse when he prevents a doctor from seeing their daughter, who is struck by a sudden sickness and dies. For Weili, aside from her children, the only bright spots during the war years are her deepening friendship with a fellow pilot’s wife, Hulan, and an enchanting meeting with a Chinese American translator, Jimmie Louis.
Back in Shanghai after the war, two encounters persuade Weili to leave her marriage. She finds Peanut, who has left her husband and set up a house for runaway wives, and meets Jimmie Louis again and falls in love with him. She does escape her husband and, after a series of misadventures that include being thrown in jail on trumped-up charges preferred by Wen Fu, joins Jimmie in California as his wife. On the day before she leaves for America, however, Weili is surprised and raped by Wen Fu. Pearl is born about nine months later, and the question of her father’s identity is left open.
Now, however, after years of doubt, Weili is convinced that Jimmie Louis, who has died, is Pearl’s true father, a fact that Weili tells her daughter as she brings her narrative to a close. Overwhelmed by her mother’s history and by her courage in revealing it, Pearl reciprocates by informing her mother of her own sickness. The novel ends with a flow of trust between mother and daughter. Each has been brought abreast of the other’s heartaches, the mother’s found in an unhappy past and the daughter’s in a struggling, uncertain future.
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