Amy Tan’s books are based on the lives and experiences of her parents and relatives, who had migrated to the US from China. She was born in Oakland in California and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written several books The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses and The Bonesetter’s Daughter. Her novels serve as cultural documents that describe the immigrant experience in terms of communality and identity. They contain the customs and rituals of China that might get lost in the new country in the process of cultural assimilation.
The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991) is her second novel and presents a mother-daughter relationship complicated by secrets- the mother withholds information about the daughter’s real parentage while the daughter hides her progressive multiple sclerosis from her mother. The novel begins in the present time when the daughter Pearl is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Then the story moves to the past as Winnie, the mother talks about her first marriage in China to a pilot named Wen Fu. All these secrets come out only because Auntie Helen, Winnie’s friend, who thinks that she is dying of a brain tumour, threatens to expose the secrets of both mother and daughter.
Winnie had lost her mother when she was a child and was brought up by her uncle’s family. She discloses her sorrowful past, her unhappy marriage, the deaths of her three children, her meeting Jimmy Louie, her escape from her first marriage and her marriage to Jimmy, whom Pearl calls father. Her bitter experiences at home after her mother’s escape (or death, she does not know the truth) make her angry towards her father. Later, when her marriage is fixed, her father asks her to spend a week with him. He asks her opinion about a painting in his study that she used to dislike. Then he adds: I liked this in you; so unafraid to say what you thought. Then he asks her present opinion on the painting and as she explains why she likes it now, he says:
From now on, he said at last with a stern look, you must consider what your husbands opinions are. Yours do not matter so much anymore (178).
During her times of trouble, she is helped by Auntie Du, Jimmy Louie and Helen. She was like the Kitchen God’s wife, who got no credit for her faithfulness and loyalty to her husband. Winnie, however decides to move and discards the image of the Kitchen God’s wife from her home because she feels that now that she has divorced her husband Wen Fu, this God has no value for her.
Once the secrets are out, both women try to come to terms with what they are entrusted with. Winnie wants to take Pearl to China to find a cure for her incurable disease. She brings the altar that Auntie Du had left for Pearl and finds a new goddess for it, a goddess with no name, obviously a factory error. She names the goddess Sorrowfree and tells Pearl:
But sometimes, when you are afraid, you can talk to her. She will listen. She will wash away everything sad with her tears. She will use her stick to chase away everything bad. See her name: Lady Sorrowfree, happiness winning over bitterness, no regrets in this world. Of course, it’s only superstition, just for fun. But see how fast the smoke rises- oh, even faster when we laugh, lifting our hopes higher and higher (532).
Tan portrays the miserable life of Winnie, who leaves China in search of a new life. She shows the patriarchal Chinese society that values boys over girls and does nothing when a man hits his wife in public. There is no one to stand up for the woman as it is considered to be her fate. Tan also critiques the generation gap that comes out of the prejudices that the old and the young feel toward each other. In the novel, the mother-daughter relationship becomes warm only when all secrets are let out and the prejudices overcome.