This section contains 1,538 words
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Critical Review by Elgy Gillespie
SOURCE: "Amy, Angst, and the Second Novel," in San Francisco Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 1, Summer, 1991, pp. 33-4.
In the following review, Gillespie discusses the problem of a second novel and asserts that Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife is both different from her first novel and successful in its own right.
Granted, she has her reasons. When Amy Tan wrote amusingly and tellingly about "Angst and the Second Novel" in a recent Publishers Weekly, she was so sympatico about the frightening game of fiction that it seemed unfair to those who usually call the shots around here: the reviewers. In essence, our Amy defanged all her potential critics, silencing us with the sheer weight of her apprehension, guilt-tripping them in advance.
The Second Novel, she said, is always compared to the first, specially if the first was an unexpected runaway success; and the First Hit Novel is the curse from which few best-selling authors can ever recover: "It's like the kid brother sticking his tongue out going nyah-nyah-nyah." And critics are always worse when the First Novel was really big—like Tan's best-selling The Joy Luck Club.
"With the first," Tan continues, "they put you on this great big pedestal. But by the time The Second Book comes around, you realize you're not sitting on a pedestal at all. It's one of those collapsible chairs above a tank of water at the county fair." After that, to slap The Kitchen God's Wife would be brutish. But there would be a scintilla of resentment attached to any praise—for how can a reviewer experience the new book adequately and objectively after the neurosis cited by Tan? And, since this book is more about mothers and daughters—a particular Chinese mother called Winnie in Shanghai during the forties and her life story and her feelings towards her daughters—we may be forgiven for reacting with skepticism to Tan's assertion that this book is no replay.
Whatsamatta, Amy? Tired of being appreciated so highly, suspicious that overvaunting praise must come before a fall? Listen up: this is show biz, sister, and you can take your reviews right on the chin. Playwright Brendan Behan used to say that critics were mere eunuchs, willing to carp and destroy because of their naked envy; they knew what was being done but could not do it themselves. In the end, though, Behan would have been a eunuch himself without those castrated critics.
Maybe the reason for Tan's Second Book nerves is because this time she did it without a safety net, so to speak. She has been writing by herself instead of taking each new chapter to her weekly writing class, as she did with Joy Luck. Both are dedicated to her writing-class teacher, Molly Giles, and her peers in the class were certainly also a major influence on the first book. After three false starts, with exhortations to make Chinese customs more accessible, to stop starting sentences with "And …," as well as to iron out inconsistencies, Tan delivered her firstborn to agent Sandra Dijkstra.
But this one came into the world sans those extra midwives. "You can say this," reported Molly Giles, when I asked about her influence on Tan's progress as a writer, "She has gone out on her own now and that's the way it should be. That's the aim of the writing class. To help a writer go out on their own." Tan still holds the classes in her house every week, but is very often away on reading or speaking engagements at schools and libraries of one kind or another, the kind of gigs that swell your fans and disarm any critics and which are necessary for writers now.
The Kitchen God's Wife begins as Pearl-ah, a young Chinese-American woman at a big family reunion, starts to tease out the relationships between her relatives from Chinatown and the Avenues, only to discover that her mother, Winnie, had several children before Pearl was born. We then abandon the story of Pearl and her mother's second family and go back to where Winnie's story begins, in the first person. As the third wife of a rich Shanghai merchant, Winnie's mother is a melancholy figure right up to her sudden and unexplained death. Married off young to the evil and vicious Wen-Fu, Winnie endures the loss of her children and her husband's infidelities and abuse during the upheaval of the Japanese invasion. Her life as Wen-Fu's wretched victim is ended by the arrival of the Allies, when she meets Pearl's father, loses him again when she is jailed, and is finally swept away to San Francisco. It is a story with a believably happy ending, for Winnie is delivered from her torturer and reunited with her American love.
The raves have already started for The Kitchen God's Wife ("A ravishing, vivid, graceful, and unforgettable tale of womanhood, endurance and love, lit by gentle humor and the healing aspect of truth. Stock up. Amy Tan's admirers are growing into a voracious legion," said American Librarian). But Tan may have a point about critics and the Second Book.
Like others, I took up The Joy Luck Club somewhat skeptically, unable to believe a blockbuster that had hogged the top of the New York Times Book Review best-sellers list could be anything other than a schlockbuster. But if I felt that tinge of resentment about Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife I soon forgot it, just as the slight condescension I had felt towards its predecessor vanished the moment I forgot the best-seller charts and began to read. It is indeed possible to pull off a second novel as good as (and perhaps better than) the first. It is also quite possible for a best-seller to be an estimable piece of writing as well as a ripping read, something I only came to credit quite recently. Once again I found myself reading Amy Tan all night, unable to put the story down until I knew what happened in the end, sniffling when I got to the sad bits (specially the loss of Yiku and Danru, Winnie's first babies) and finally going to sleep at dawn with the conviction that Tan had provided an education for the heart.
There is a poem by the Irishman Derek Mahon called "In a Disused Shed in County Wexford," in which a man who stumbles upon trays of forgotten mushrooms growing unseen in the darkness compares them to the lost victims of history and to "magi, moonmen, lost people of Treblinka." Millions of lives lived in obscurity, oceans of pain and suffering, are recalled by their sad round white faces glowing in the blackness of the forgotten. Tan's second book is further testimony to the endurance of the human spirit, to the many privations and humiliations borne by the unseen and unheard victims—particularly those who were female—in China's recent history.
You may have seen The Last Emperor, you may have read Empire of the Sun, and you may have a notion that you know the tiniest bit about what happened in Harbin and Tientsin and Shanghai in the forties, Tienanmen in the eighties. But after reading this book, you will see how little you knew about the forgotten millions whose homes you may one day snap as a tourist, and their brave but often futile efforts to survive and carry on. In Mahon's words, "You with your light meter and your relaxed itinerary / Let not our naive labors have been in vain!"
If anything, The Kitchen God's Wife is a more satisfying book than its predecessor. It deals with the same themes, but more profoundly and sensitively, and its linear structure allows puzzles to be unraveled and truths to unfurl along the way. Its characterization is sometimes exaggerated and comic, but its dialogue is so natural that the people practically stand beside you. There are some splendidly cinematic scenes—the meeting of Winnie and her Chinese-American true love, Jimmy Louie, for instance, in a crowded, drunken dance-hall, where she is confronted with two hideous sights: her own vicious and jealous husband who abuses her in front of everyone, and a shamed Chinese wife who is being passed along from soldier to soldier like an unstrung puppet.
As a backdrop, of course, we learn more about the nature of arranged marriages in Chinese societies and also about the kind of inter-wifely accommodation arranged by second or third wives and their offspring. It is like being invited into a dusty room full of castoffs, and being given a chance to re-apprehend them in their former richness. We get to understand how this society worked, and we understand how, why, and from where Chinese-American society evolved. All this is the most important job of fiction, of course; and since Chinese women lived lives not just of forgotten obscurity, but of hermetically sealed oblivion, Tan is handing us a key with no price tag and letting us open the brass-bolted door.
Despite some superficial similarities between The Joy Luck Club, with its mother-daughter mah jong-style symmetry, and The Kitchen God's Wife, with its deepened mother-daughter dynamic, the new novel bears out Tan's claim that it is different. It is at once simpler and truer; the voice firm, unalloyed. Tan's army of sisterly defenders have nothing to fear.
This section contains 1,538 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)