THE KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE.
415 pages. $21.95. Amy Tan's much-awaited second novel has a good deal in common with "The Joy Luck Club" -- good news for her many fans. It is not a self-imitation, but readers will recognize her voice.
Once again, Ms. Tan alternates between narration by a San Francisco-born daughter and her Chinese-born mother. Pearl, the daughter, conveys the familiar feeling of impatience when her mother, Winnie, clings to her old-fashioned ways or makes emotional demands that a Chinese mother considers it her daughter's duty to fulfill.
But often, the most important things are left unsaid. Pearl says early in the book, "In our family, 'proud' is as close as we get to saying 'love.' " "The Kitchen God's Wife" is the story of how Pearl and her mother finally manage to tell each other their greatest secret, which each has kept to herself for years.
Pearl reveals hers to the reader in the first few pages, to her mother only at the end of the book: She was diagnosed seven years ago with multiple sclerosis. She appears normal, except that she tires easily and is apt to lose her balance. But the prognosis is so uncertain that she could be in remission for 10, 20 or 40 years -- or only for another day.
Explaining why she hasn't told her mother, Pearl says, "At first I didn't want to hear her theories on my illness, what caused this to happen, how she should have done this or that to prevent it. I did not want her to remind me." Now that so much time has gone by, it has become harder to broach the subject.
In a few pages, Ms. Tan has expertly established the complexities of this mother-daughter relationship. She also has introduced Auntie Helen, a longtime friend of Winnie's who appears throughout the book; and Grand Auntie Du, a great-aunt Pearl thought already had died until her mother called to announce the funeral. Grand Auntie Du left Pearl a Buddhist altar containing a picture of the Kitchen God.
Winnie explains that the Kitchen God abandoned his wife and was given the status of a god when he admitted he was wrong -- riding to godhood on the strength of his wife's good deeds, for she took him back in when he had nothing. But the men are never strong characters in Ms. Tan's books -- even the male gods -- and before the story is over the Kitchen God is replaced in the altar with a goddess, Lady Sorrowfree.
The bulk of the novel is devoted to Winnie's secret. The reader learns it within the first 100 pages, but she has kept it from Pearl for 40 years. First, she tells Pearl about her own mother. The second of five wives of a wealthy Shanghai merchant, she left Winnie (Weiwei then) when she was 6.
Winnie never found out why. Her other relatives said she had died, but perhaps she ran away with the man her own mother had not let her marry. Winnie was brought up by two aunts and an uncle, who showed her little love.
She occasionally breaks the flow of the narrative to remind Pearl of incidents she has long forgotten, such as the time Pearl was lovestruck by the first boy who paid attention to her. She ignored her mother's warnings. Later, Winnie could see her daughter's heart was breaking, and Winnie's was breaking for her -- but neither spoke of it.
Winnie's own experiences never allowed her to forget how a man could take away a young woman's innocence. When she met Wen Fu at age 18, she was lonely and had no expectations, and he was charming. He sent a marriage broker to her aunts, and she had no choice.
As her story unfolds, it becomes clear why, after a few years of marriage, Winnie prayed for Wen Fu to be killed by the Japanese while he was at war. His unremittingly selfish, at times sadistic, character seems believable in the context of the roles of the sexes in China at the time. When he took in a concubine when she was in the hospital giving birth, Winnie decided not to protest. At least Wen Fu would stop raping her -- although she didn't put it that way to herself.
Between Japanese bombings during the war, the death of her children, a jail term and continued oppression by Wen Fu even after she left him, it is no wonder Winnie has seemed a bit hard to her daughter. She finally found happiness with Jimmy Louie, Pearl's father, who brought Winnie to America. That gentle man, a minister, died when Pearl was 14, and Winnie has never forgiven Pearl for the way she acted the day of the funeral.
The book ends satisfyingly, with a hard-fought-for understanding between mother and daughter; Amy Tan is never one for simple solutions or easy sentiment. Once again, she has created an entire world, both in America and China, that will stay with the reader long after the book is finished.