This section contains 1,946 words
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Critical Review by Helen Yglesias
SOURCE: "The Second Time Around," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. VIII, No. 12, September, 1991, pp. 1, 3.
In the following review, Yglesias delineates the reasons that Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife may surpass the success of her The Joy Luck Club.
Amy Tan is an immensely popular writer. Her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, was a knockout success, and her second is well on its way to equal, if not surpass, it. The readers who loved the first will surely love the second, since both tell the same story—and this time around Tan has executed the work better in conception, in design, in detail and in sheer pleasure for the reader.
If this sounds like criticism in the guise of praise, it is not. Amy Tan commands an intriguing style which, along with her highly special subject matter, makes for a unique contribution to contemporary writing. The Joy Luck Club introduced her as a young novelist; more or less inevitably, what she had to say was not entirely successfully done the first time. It is to our advantage that she returned to her powerful material for another try.
Amy Tan herself comments that things Chinese are fashionable these days, and some part of her extraordinary success is due to its chic aspect, if only in the most surface way. (Note The New Yorker's recent two-part article on Chinatown, much of whose opening up of this closed society was undone by its emphasis on the area as the center of a new Mafia, reinforcing the image of Chinatown as a sinister place.) Chic or not, our contemporary interest in Chinese-American society is a corrective to former attitudes of vilification at worst, and abysmal neglect at best.
Even more blatantly than prejudice towards blacks, Native Americans, Latins, Jews and gays, ignorance of the culture and humanity of Asians has given anti-Asian racism a special twist. "Orientals" have been cast as quintessentially other, giving Westerners leave to ascribe villainy to everything about them, beginning with the shape of their eyes and extending to their religion and the mysteries of their enclosed private lives. Everybody of my generation hides memories of anti-Chinese chants, shouted as we raced past the local Chinese laundry. In entertainment, we have parlayed our ignorance into a mish-mash of comic-strip mythology in which Chinese women, when they aren't helpless victims of murderous males, yellow or white, are campy villains, Dragon Ladies all.
There isn't a single Chinese laundry in either one of Amy Tan's novels, and no Dragon Ladies. Tan rescued the Chinese-American woman from numbing distortion in The Joy Luck Club, but the central gimmick of that book's design was finally limiting. In 1949, four Chinese women in San Francisco form a club to play mah-jong, invest in stocks, eat dim sum and remind one another of their pasts in China, neatly combining basic elements of Chinese life—gambling, money, eating, ancestral power and community. Tan told the mothers' stories as well as those of their four daughters, revealing the tension that is engendered in any mother-daughter relationship, but especially between first-generation American daughters and their immigrant mothers. This shaping presented the reader with eight separate protagonists, a spread too thin and too confusing to be truly successful.
In The Kitchen God's Wife, without sacrificing a social breadth we cherish as readers, Tan hews closely to one woman's story. Once again a mother and daughter exchange secrets. In speaking her bitterness, the mother's tale evokes an entire female generation's excruciating trials. Almost all of us are immigrants or daughters and granddaughters of immigrants, and our identification with the story Amy Tan tells is the source of the powerful sway she exerts on us as readers. Because I am Jewish, I find the parallels with the Jewish immigrant ordeals most moving, but perhaps readers of all backgrounds feel a similar identification. To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, the immigrant experience is the immigrant experience is the immigrant experience, and the violent shocks of dislocation were, and are, common to all.
Back in 1976 when I published Family Feeling, which attempted to do the daughter-and-immigrant-mother syndrome as fiction, one reviewer (Bell Gale Chevigny in the pages of The Nation) recognized the intent and commented on its placing a woman at the center of this experience of dislocation. Anzia Yezierska had done her bit earlier in the century in a highly idiosyncratic manner, and later Kate Simon added her compellingly beautiful memoirs; but overall in the chronicle of the Jewish migration, women writers have performed against a background of powerful males already dominating, and distorting, the tale. It's interesting that in the Chinese-American rush of truth, women writers predominate.
The power of literature over sociology lies in particularization, and it is in its details The Kitchen God's Wife excels. Hooked to the legend of the kitchen god, a weak, selfish and thoughtless man saved from damnation by the virtue and good sense of his wife, who of course never becomes a god herself, the thrust of the book is made plain—perhaps too obviously. The novel hardly needs the legend to sustain its clear intent to elevate the kitchen god's wife to her rightful place in history. But, nothing lost, it enhances the book with a striking title.
Amy Tan is gifted with a quirky style, a broad historical sense, and great energy as a story-teller. Winnie's life is recounted backwards, from her present existence in contemporary San Francisco to her beginnings in the old China before the Second World War, for the understanding of her daughter Pearl, a Chinese-American speech and language clinician married for fifteen years to a non-Chinese physician. The young couple and their little children are very much the American middle-class family wrapped up in the interests consistent with their status—except for the exotic ingredient of Pearl's Chinese family, and the terrible note struck by her affliction with multiple sclerosis.
Pearl is keeping this diagnosis a secret from her mother, just as her mother has kept fundamental information secret from her. The novel is the working out of these mysteries between the two. On the surface, Winnie's ways are more irritating than mysterious to the daughter, who arrogantly assigns herself a critical perspective on her mother's life. But with the full account of that life, Pearl comes to know—as does the reader—not only an identifiable and deeply moving woman who engages our full sympathies, but also the cruel mores, the male domination and the rigid class structures of the society that distorted the child her mother was into the seemingly crabbed old woman she appears to be.
History is also set straight, Winnie reminding her daughter that World War Two began for the Chinese when Japan invaded China. The account of forced flight from the advancing Japanese is powerful story-telling, but it is through vivid minutiae that Tan more often exercises her particular charm. Some anecdotes, done with astonishing mastery in Winnie's voice, are complete diversions within themselves, encompassing no more than a couple of paragraphs.
… like that girl I once knew in Shanghai, the schoolmate who went to the same Christian school as me. She came from a rich family like mine. She was almost as pretty as me. Around the same time I married my first husband, she had a wedding contract to a rich banking family. But after the summer, her face became marked forever with smallpox, and that contract disappeared. I pitied that girl because she had lost her face two ways.
Many years later I met her again … in Fresno. She was married to an American Chinese man who owned a grocery store, selling soda pop, potato chips, cigarettes, everything at high prices. That's how I met her again, at the checkout counter. I was buying ice cream on a stick. She cried "Sister, sister, remember me!" But she didn't give me a discount. After I paid her, she told me how her husband was honest, very kind, very nice and as she said this, she pushed her many jade bracelets up her arm so they would fall back down and clink together like rich music. She was smiling so big all her pock marks looked like the happy dimples she now wore.
Tan weaves trivia into rich and illuminating character portrayal, treasures that literally appear on every page. Here is Winnie describing her closest friend, Hulan, and in the mirror image, herself:
Hulan could not be called pretty, even if you judged her with an old-fashioned eye. She was plump, but not in that classical way as a peach whose pink skin is nearly bursting with sweetness. Her plumpness was round and overflowing in uneven spots, more like a steamed dumpling with too much filling leaking out of the sides. She had thick ankles and large hands, and feet as broad as boat paddles. While she had cut her hair in a popular Western style—parted deep on one side like this, combed back smooth, and curled halfway down—she had applied the curling sticks to her hair unevenly. So here it was lumpy, there it was flat. And she had no sense of fashion, none at all. One day I saw her wearing a Western-style flowery dress on top of a yellow Chinese dress that hung down like a too long slip. On top of this she wore a sweater she had knit, with the sleeves too short. She looked just like laundry hung out to dry.
… When we washed together every evening, she sat on the stool with her legs wide open like this, scrubbing herself vigorously—her breasts, under her arms, under her legs, between her legs, her backside, the crease of her bottom—until her skin was covered with red streaks, And then she would get on her hands and knees, just like a dog, and naked like that, she would dip her hair into the basin of cloudy hot water left over from her bath.
I was embarrassed for her—and for myself, knowing this was the way I appeared to my husband every night. I tried not to look at her. I would pretend to be busy washing myself, my thin arms folded in front of my breasts, one large cloth over my lap, while I used another cloth to wash what was underneath without showing any obvious motions. But I could not stop myself from watching Hulan.
Another of Tan's strengths lies in her evocation of large positive emotions without descending into sentimentality, though she can come very close to the edge. Winnie describes herself during her first marriage, still in wartime China, horrified by her bullying husband, attracted to another, gentler man: "I was a married woman, yet I had never felt love from a man, or for a man. And that night I almost did. I felt the danger, that this was how you love someone, one person letting out fears, the other drawing closer to soothe the pain. And then more would pour out, everything that has been hidden, more and more—sorrow, shame, loneliness, all the old aches, so much released until you overflowed with joy to be rid of it, until it was too late to stop this new joy from taking over your heart."
If the novel goes on a little too long and the final resolution is perhaps too pat, a little unlike life as we know it in its wrapped-up gratifications, these very elements add to the satisfactions it gives us. Like Winnie, we end mellow but still sharp: "Now help me light three sticks of incense. The smoke will take our wishes to heaven. 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."
This section contains 1,946 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)