Amy Tan | Critical Review by Scarlet Cheng

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Amy Tan.
This section contains 909 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Scarlet Cheng

SOURCE: "Amy Tan Redux," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 7, No. 1, Fall, 1991, pp. 15, 19.

In the following review, Cheng lauds Tan's The Kitchen God's Wife stating, "The ending, with its extraordinary convergence of all that has gone on before, is a marvel."

Yes, it's true: Amy Tan has done it again—with searing clarity of vision she has spun a tale that lyrically weaves past and present, myth and memory. And she has written a true novel this time, one sustained story that lasts all of some four hundred pages.

For the many who read her first book, The Joy Luck Club, the second opens on familiar territory—Pearl is the grown daughter of a very Chinese mother, Winnie, who speaks English with the snappy cadence and salty metaphors of her native tongue and whose way of thinking—of linking the visible and the invisible worlds—has come with her across the Pacific to the San Francisco Bay Area.

While Winnie still lives in Chinatown, Pearl is living fifty miles outside the city with a Caucasian husband and two Americanized little girls. They come together for a cousin's engagement dinner and for an aunt's funeral. Each has been guarding a secret: Pearl has multiple sclerosis; Winnie a checkered past she tried to leave behind in China.

But meddlesome Aunt Helen takes it on herself to set the record straight. When she nags Pearl to reveal her illness, Pearl protests that she does not want to worry her mother.

"This is her right to worry," says Aunt Helen. "She is your mother."

"But she shouldn't have to worry about something that isn't really a problem."

"That's why you should tell her now. No more problem after that."

"But then she'll wonder why we kept this a secret from her. She'll think it's worse than it is."

"Maybe she has some secrets too." She smiles, then laughs at what must be a private joke. "Your mother, oh yes, plenty of secrets!"

Winnie does have plenty of secrets, and revealing them takes most of the book. While both mother and daughter learn to share what has been locked deep inside, this is really Winnie's story. She tells of the turns of fate she suffered in a China that was attempting to modernize but was still fundamentally feudal and often brutal to women.

First Winnie (Weili in her other life) conjures up the romantic memory of her own mother, the first of the moderns of Chinese society to have unbound feet. "When my mother was eight years old," Winnie recalls, "her feet were already unbound, and some people say that's why she ran wild." Her mother received an education, which some later called "bad." But Winnie says, "If you were to ask me, what happened to my mother was not a bad education but bad fate. Her education only made her unhappy thinking about it—that no matter how much she changed her life, she could not change the world that surrounded her."

Her bad fate was to fall in love with one man but be forced to marry another. Then one day she mysteriously disappears, and her young daughter is dispatched to be raised by relatives on a remote island. Weili grows up dreaming for her disgraced fate to change. When she gets matched to the dashing young Wen Fu, a man from a well-to-do family, she believes that it has. But as soon as she is married, her in-laws make off with her immense dowry, and her groom turns out to be a selfish brute whose behavior gets progressively worse.

As one of the first pilots for the Chinese Air Force, Wen Fu is transferred from training camp to military base and finally to Kunming, the Kuomingtang stronghold towards the end of the war. Weili naturally moved with him, trying to maintain the semblance of home, preparing special meals and treats purchased with the dowry money that was, fortunately, banked in her own name.

In such ways Weili and her friend Hulan, both alternately foolish and valiant, seek happiness even as the world around them is collapsing. Tan captures beautifully this helter-skelter period in China, when many lived on the run, never knowing how long they would be in one place—or one piece, as the Japanese battered cities with aerial raids.

It seems that Weili endures one humiliation, only to have greater sorrow come to crush her. She is physically beaten, her babies die, and more, much more. Yet this woman grows less foolish, more resilient, until she finds the courage to grasp her own happiness.

The ending, with its extraordinary convergence of all that has gone on before, is a marvel.

At a recent appearance in Washington, D.C., Amy Tan said, "I always find that it's necessary to write with some reader in mind, and for me, that someone is always my mother." In a haunting way, she has also successfully taken on her mother's voice in The Kitchen God's Wife—or, at least, the voice of someone of her mother's generation who lived through the tumultuous period of history her mother did. In addition to this remarkable mediumship, Tan displays superb storytelling—spinning personae and situations that are credible and compelling. But more, she has the courage to share heartfelt sorrow and grief, to acknowledge human imperfection and fate's ambiguities. Tan shows us that a life can encompass all that—grief, imperfection, ambiguity—and still add up to triumph, a triumph of the spirit, of the human soul to endure, to show compassion, and to hold fast to dreams.

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This section contains 909 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Scarlet Cheng
Literature Criticism Series
Critical Review by Scarlet Cheng from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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