In The Kitchen God’s Wife, Auntie Helen confronts her friend Winnie, who has secrets, and Winnie’s married daughter Pearl, who has multiple sclerosis but is afraid to face her mother. Helen announces that they must confide in each other or she, who is dying of a “B nine” brain tumor, will tell everything. Winnie agrees and summons her estranged daughter.
Winnie’s mother, born into wealth and educated in a missionary school, had met a young revolutionary and threatened to swallow gold if her family did not allow them to marry. Instead, she was made second wife to her grandfather’s friend. Winnie remembers living with her mother until she was six, when her mother suddenly died or disappeared; she is never sure which. The child was sent away to relatives.
After a few years, a young man, Wen Fu, became interested in her cousin Peanut, but Winnie was a better marriage prospect because of her father’s wealth, so the Wens chose her. Though she did not love Wen Fu, she hoped for a better life. Instead, the greedy Wen family seized her dowry and sold it or used it for themselves. When Wen Fu began to brutalize and humiliate her, she was not angry: “This was China. A woman had no right to be angry.”
In 1937, Wen Fu joined the Kuomintang army under his dead brother’s name in order to qualify for an American-staffed flight school. There, Winnie met Helen, wife of another officer. Although popular with other pilots, Wen Fu enjoyed playing sadistic games. He was never injured in their bombing missions because, a coward, he always flew the other way.
As the Japanese army invaded China, pregnant Winnie was sent south to Kunming, where her first child was stillborn. After Wen Fu stole a jeep to impress a woman, he was partially blinded, and the woman was killed in an accident. From that time, his behavior became even more violent. He destroyed the hospital kitchen with a cleaver. His servant, raped and impregnated, died from a self-induced abortion. Winnie’s second baby, brain-damaged by his beatings, was allowed to die. Their son later died of plague.
When World War II was over, they returned to Shanghai, where Winnie’s father, a collaborator with the Japanese, was viewed as a traitor. Wen Fu offered to manage his business to protect him, then took control of his money and terrified the household.
Just as Winnie decided to ask her cousin Peanut to help her leave her abusive marriage, she encountered Jimmy Louie, a kind Chinese American officer she had met in Kunming. On a pretext, she escaped her father’s house and agreed to stay with Jimmy. In order to divorce Wen Fu, she hired a lawyer, but after his office was vandalized by Wen Fu’s thugs, he refused to help her further.
Wen Fu had Winnie jailed for theft and desertion. Jimmy, who would become her second husband, returned to the United States because of the scandal and waited for her there. After more than a year, Helen’s Auntie Du arranged Winnie’s release from prison and helped her to obtain a visa and airline tickets. Wen Fu was tricked into stating publicly that they were divorced so that he could have no further control over her. He returned to rape Winnie at gunpoint before she fled China.
Pearl now realizes that she is probably Wen Fu’s daughter, the secret her mother has kept from her. She tells Winnie of her own illness, and Winnie offers hope. She and Helen will go to China to find good medicine for Pearl, for Helen has confessed that she has no brain tumor. She merely pretended to be ill as a way to bring Winnie closer to her daughter.
The Kitchen God is the inhabitant of a small shrine left to Pearl by Grand Auntie Du. He was an unfaithful husband who burned in the fireplace rather than face his good wife. Winnie realizes, “I was like that wife of Kitchen God.” She determines to replace his picture with a luckier one. Eventually, she finds a statue of an unnamed goddess for the shrine and names her Lady Sorrowfree, advising Pearl, “She is ready to...
(The entire section is 3,296 words.)