Literary Wives: The Kitchen God’s Wife

Welcome to the latest post in the Literary Wives series. Every two months, a group of bloggers reads a book with word “wife” in the title, and we attempt to answer the following two questions in our posts for that month.

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Please visit these other fantastic blogs for their take on this month’s book, and if you’d like to join the conversation, on our blogs or on yours by reading along, feel free to do so.

Naomi of Consumed by Ink

Kay of What Me Read

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

kitchen god's wife

I have a confession. I didn’t finish reading this one. We focused on Amy Tan’s The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991), and I have already read it, several years ago. I tried to reread it for this series by listening to it while driving to and from school. Although I downloaded an audio copy of it onto my phone, the recording was an old one, with terrible quality, and had Amy Tan, the author, as the reader. I could not hear it well enough to stay engaged in the story.

However, I can tell you that it tells us that being a wife, especially one in early twentieth century China, was a miserable experience. The story is framed from a grown daughter’s perspective of her Chinese mother, and we can tell that she is somewhat exasperated by her mother’s quirky habits and sometimes annoying self-pity and overbearing demeanor. Yet the real story is that of the mother’s experiences when she was younger, and we learn through her own voice (typical of Tan’s novels) that she had married out of necessity and endured the tyranny of her husband. She longed for a divorce, but could not secure one immediately. She also lost children in the course of this marriage. Her husband is cruel, abusive, domineering, and entitled because of his maleness. She is strong and has a spirit of independence. While I did not get all the way through the book, I suspect that she found a way to secure her freedom.

From this account of cruelty, we learn that wives in that era in China were seen as property. We also learn that just because they were treated badly did not mean that they did not have a desire to improve their situations. Wives are human beings, and through the experience of this wife, we see how she is able to overcome the expectations of her role and find a way to live the way she wanted to.

Because of this triumph of the human spirit, I like Tan’s books. All of them seem to follow the formula of a modern day narrative of a Chinese daughter who is frustrated with her mother; the mother then reveals her story of hardship, trial, and triumph; and the daughter learns to appreciate her heritage and her family. There is hope in Tan’s portrayal of wives.

Join us in February. We will be reviewing A Circle of Wives (2015) by Alice LaPlante.



24 thoughts on “Literary Wives: The Kitchen God’s Wife

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  1. I read this a long time ago too. I liked it at the time, but I am now bored of Amy Tan’s formula. Her books always seem to be the same stories told in different ways.

    1. I didn’t want to say it, but agreed! I was bored with the story as well. It came across as whiny. But I don’t in any way want to minimize the importance of Tan’s stories and the hardships of women in other cultures. I just think that this was the way these stories “came to light” in the 1990s, and now we are getting more sophisticated versions of them.

      1. I have to say I agree with both of you. I think I read a total of three of her novels, and they all seemed to be about the same thing. I found that they were interesting, but I got tired of the same themes every time and stopped reading her.

  2. I’m going to read “Circle of Wives” along with you. I downloaded it a year ago and it apparently got lost in the shuffle. I love books with very complicated marriages in them.

    Speaking of which: your group should consider “The Headmaster’s Wife,” by Thomas Christopher Greene. I reviewed it on my blog, if you want a little preview. It will definitely give you lots to talk about.

    Happy holidays to you and yours, Emily!

    1. How exciting that you’re joining in on this next one! The Headmaster’s Wife is definitely on my TBR. We’ll have to keep that one in mind!

  3. That’s one of the reasons I liked the book, and why I think so many other people like it – no matter how hard it gets, there is always hope in the story. Also, I found quite a bit of humour. Her characters made me smile.

    1. Her characters are definitely funny, and the bad narratives always have improved endings. Maybe they are kind of like fairy tales? Not in a bad way, but in a formulaic way.

  4. I read this book a very, very long time ago. I wonder how it would hold up for me now that I am in a different frame of mind.

  5. Tan does have a formula, and she seems to be working through the same story over and over again, the story of daughters and mothers. But yes, wives come into play because that’s all women were in those times and places. I can’t reread Tan’s books because they make me cry too much, but I never thought of them as whiney. Emotionally manipulative, yes, but whiney? Maybe it’s a generational thing? I’m curious how you think she would better tell her and her mother’s story?

    1. I don’t know how else! I really enjoyed these books when I was first introduced to them. I think the “whiny” word came from the bad quality of the sound recording I tried to listen to. It was just hard to hear.

  6. I’ve read the Joy Luck Club and enjoyed it. We don’t have wives these days, we have partners who share rights and responsibilities. Not as perfect as that yet, but I think we are getting there. Sorry if I’m wandering away from your post, Emily, but when I hear or read the term wives these days, I think of The Real Housewives of… The show seems to have taken over world wide, is perfectly foul and has nothing to do with either wives or partners. Perhaps it’s the 21stC wife’s revenge on 20th Century males? I can’t work it out.

    1. Interesting comments. You are right that the word “wife” from a pop culture perspective has become synonymous with those “real” housewives. Not a good image. I like that you describe it as a partnership. That is what we have been working toward and hopefully we are mostly there.

  7. Well, she did manage to “escape” her marriage and China, but just barely! As she admits, mainly due to her own braggadocio! Which was so out of character for her. I admit that throughout the first 75 pages I was less than enthralled with this one, but Winnie’s story definitely picked up the pace for me. You remember so much of it! 🙂

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