The Kitchen God's Wife: Novel Summary:chp 1
Summary of The Kitchen God’s Wife, by Amy Tan (Penguin Edition, 1991)
Chapter One, “The Shop of the Gods,” pages 11-37
Pearl Louie Brandt, the Chinese-American narrator of this chapter, describes a phone call from her quirky Chinese mother, Winnie Louie, who has called to say that Pearl must attend her cousin Bao-bao Kwong’s engagement party in San Francisco. Pearl and her mother are not blood relatives of the Kwongs; Bao-bao’s mother, Helen, was married to Winnie’s brother, a long time ago. Yet Pearl and Winnie are considered immediate family. Pearl cannot find an excuse not to attend this traditional Chinese family function.
Two days before the engagement dinner, Winnie calls to tell Pearl that Grand Auntie Du has died. Grand Auntie Du was actually Helen’s relative, but Winnie has always had a daughterly attachment to her. In fact, according to Winnie’s complaints, it was she—not Helen—who took care of the old woman. Pearl sees that the relationship between Winnie and Auntie Helen is complicated. The two women have been friends for fifty years or more, and they co-own The Ding Ho Flower Shop together. Yet there is a competitiveness between them that Pearl does not understand.
Pearl’s husband, Phil, agrees to attend the engagement dinner, even though they Winnie insists they stay with her. Pearl recalls that she and Phil used to fight about what Phil has termed Pearl’s “blind devotion” to her family duty, about the way she allows Winnie to manipulate her by using guilt. Now, however, she and Phil avoid that subject. Ever since they found out that Pearl has multiple sclerosis, they have tried to live “a smoother life.”
At Winnie’s, Pearl and Phil endure Winnie’s fussing and her frugal habits. They sleep in Pearl’s old room, where nothing has changed since Pearl was a teenager. They plan the next day, when Phil will take their daughters, Tessa and Cleo, to the zoo, and Pearl will help her mother at the flower shop. When eight-year-old Tessa counts on her fingers all the animals she hopes to see at the zoo, Pearl wonders where her daughter got this habit. From her? From Phil?
The next day, Pearl goes to the Ding Ho Flower Shop. As she walks there, she passes stores from her childhood in Chinatown, particularly one she calls “The Shop of the Gods,” a store full of charms and statues of gods. The owner, Mr. Hong, gives her a bundle of “spirit money” to take to Winnie for Grand Auntie Du’s funeral. By this gesture, Pearl realizes that Grand Auntie Du is having a Buddhist funeral; she never gave up the old Chinese rituals.
The Ding Ho Flower Shop is as dimly lit and shabby as Pearl remembers it. Winnie is in a state because she has had to prepare flowers both for the engagement dinner and for Auntie Du’s upcoming funeral by herself because, she complains, Auntie Helen left early to get ready for the dinner. Pearl is amazed at the number of arrangements and funeral wreaths her mother has prepared by herself, as well as the number of red banners she has inscribed with sentiments regarding Auntie Du. Pearl is also surprised when her mother tells her that she, a Christian woman, is giving Auntie Du “one hundred million dollars” of Buddhist spirit money to ensure her passage to Chinese heaven, because she greatly respected the old woman.
That night, as Pearl and Phil and their daughters attend the engagement dinner, Pearl is greeted by her cousin Mary, Helen’s daughter. Mary irritates Pearl because she knows about Pearl’s multiple sclerosis, and her overt sympathy constantly reminds Pearl of her disease. Mary also betrayed Pearl by telling Helen about her disease, even though Pearl has not told Winnie—her own mother—about her devastating diagnosis.
Pearl has not told Winnie because, “according to my mother, nothing is an accident.” Winnie has an obsessive belief in ying-gai, a belief that “she should have altered the direction of fate, she should have prevented disaster.” She feels responsible for every bad thing that happens, even for not preventing her husband’s death from cancer when Pearl was fourteen. Pearl knows that Winnie will feel somehow responsible for her daughter’s disease, too, and she will drive both of them crazy seeking a reason for the disease, and a Chinese medicine cure for it. Even more, Pearl dreads the moment when her mother must find out that Auntie Helen learned about Pearl’s illness before she did.
At the dinner, Pearl observes her mother feeding jellyfish to Cleo and telling Cleo that Pearl, as a little girl, loved to eat rubbery things. Cleo starts to cry at the thought of eating something rubbery, and when Auntie Helen calms her, Winnie is angry that Helen has interfered. Pearl feels bad for Winnie because “she’s been betrayed by her memory and my childhood fondness for rubbery-tasting things. I think about a child’s capacity to hurt her mother in ways that she cannot ever imagine.”
Suddenly, Pearl feels overwhelmed by the noisy room and by her guilt that she cannot talk to her own mother about an important thing like her multiple sclerosis. She wonders how such a distance sprang up between mother and daughter.
Auntie Helen interrupts her musings and asks her to help her cut the cake. But what Helen really wants is to talk to Pearl. At first, she tells Pearl she has discovered that she has a brain tumor, and although it is benign, Helen is convinced she is dying. Because she is dying, she says, she can no longer keep Pearl’s secret from Winnie. She demands that either Pearl tell her mother about her multiple sclerosis, or Helen will tell her. Pearl says that her mother will be so upset because she kept this secret from her. Helen mysteriously replies, “‘Maybe she has secrets too. . . . Your mother, oh yes, plenty of secrets!’”
Back at Winnie’s house, Pearl is exhausted from the evening. She is too tired to tackle telling her mother her secret. Instead, she grows irritated when Winnie fusses over them as they try to go to bed. Then she feels instantly guilty as she hears Winnie’s “slippers slowly padding down the hallway, each soft shuffle breaking my heart.”
The narrative point of view in this chapter is important. Because the chapter is told through Pearl’s eyes, through the eyes of a grown woman dealing with a tiresome, quirky, interfering mother, readers see Winnie as Pearl sees her. Pearl feels dutiful towards the woman who raised her, but at the same time, she cannot connect with her. Pearl is an educated woman, a modern, American woman raising two girls in a modern world. Winnie, however, is part of the old world, the old Chinese traditions that Pearl is no longer part of. Pearl cannot cut herself off from Winnie, but neither can she embrace her.
Pearl—and through her, readers—thinks she knows Winnie. But there are hints that perhaps she does not know everything about her mother. Why does Winnie seem petty and jealous towards her longtime friend, Helen? Why is she was she so devoted to Grand Auntie Du? Why does Winnie feels responsible for other people’s ill luck? Pearl chalks these quirks up to her mother’s irritating, hovering personality, but Helen suggests that Winnie has “secrets.” What lies in her past that has made her into the woman she is now?