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The Disorientation of Pearl and Kai : THE KITCHEN GOD'S WIFE, By Amy Tan (G. P. Putnam's Sons: $21.95; 416 pp.)

June 16, 1991|Nancy Forbes Romano | Forbes Romano taught fiction writing at Columbia University and is currently at work on a collection of short stories

Winnie Louie lives in San Francisco, in a house painted the color of Pepto Bismol, and for 25 years has run a dingy flower shop with her oldest friend, Helen.

As seen by her 40-ish daughter Pearl, Winnie's life is a frustrating jumble of Old World superstitions, peasantlike frugality and easy asides in a language she doesn't know. But when Winnie herself bursts into speech, stories shoot into the air, exploding into sparkling blooms.

We are in the world of Amy Tan, the world of Chinese mothers and their American-born daughters, which the many readers of "The Joy Luck Club" will remember. Tan has created that world anew, with the same clarity and brilliance.

"The Joy Luck Club" weaved together the voices of several women, each one telling her own personal story. In "The Kitchen God's Wife," we listen mainly to one woman talking to her daughter.

In Winnie's long monologue, Tan takes the folded-up linens of an immigrant woman's past life and blows into every crease and wrinkle, exposing the surface to the sunlight. With desperate urgency, the 70-year-old Winnie (Jiang Weili, in China) tells Pearl the story of Pearl's true father: "I will call her, long, long distance. Cost doesn't matter, I will say. I have to tell you something, can't wait any longer. And then I will start to tell her, not what happened, but why it happened, how it could not be any other way."

Winnie's voice is so charged with long-suppressed memory, with guilt and regret, that we become locked with her in the web of her destiny, discovering that all the events that pile up "could not be any other way." We follow her course from age 6, when her indulgent and beautiful mother disappears.

Winnie is sent to live with her uncle and two wives on a remote island, where her cousin Peanut is favored and pampered, while she, Jiang Weili, is merely tolerated. "Of course, I hurt . . . but how could I complain?" she asks. "I was supposed to be grateful. They took me in, leftovers from my mother's disgrace. . . . They forgot I did not have my own mother, someone who could tell me what I was really feeling, what I really wanted, someone who could guide me to my expectations."

At 18, Winnie makes the biggest mistake of her life. Kept in ignorance about her own mother's fate, rejected by her own father and reared to be obedient, she is compelled by her aunts to marry a charming, conniving local boy. Jiang Weili herself is infatuated with this man and thinks her luck is now improving. But her new husband, Wen Fu, changes character on her wedding night, and ever after subjects Jiang Weili to humiliating sexual acts and sadistic daily "jokes," while steadily robbing her of her dowry. After Wen Fu beats her first daughter into mental retardation, Jiang Weili has one more child, and then aborts her later pregnancies, results of Wen Lu's nightly rapes.

The years of her marriage, 1937-1945, also were the years of the Japanese invasion of China. Wen Fu had joined the air force and Jiang Weili followed him from one army post to another. In 1937, China was unprepared for war:

"Too busy fighting each other to fight together. And not just the Americans and the Chinese. The old revolutionaries, the new revolutionaries, the Kuomintang and the Communists, the warlords, the bandits, and the students . . . everybody squabbling, like old roosters claiming the same sunrise. And the rest of us--women and children, old people, poor people--we were like scared hens, letting everyone chase us from one corner to another. So of course the Japanese saw an opportunity to sneak in like a fox and steal everything."

As Jiang Weili grows and toughens, we also glimpse the terrible years of the Japanese war--years made as specific and detailed as one long overcast afternoon. When Jiang Weili finally finagles a divorce from Wen Fu and a passage to America, she shuts down on China forever. She even makes her closest friend and fellow-immigrant, Helen (Hulan, in China), swear never to mention Wen Fu's name again.

Tan writes Winnie's confession/explanation in the tones of a victim who somehow feels she is still to blame. Winnie's own character is divided against itself. She has internalized those rules of conduct by which her culture denigrates women; she has within her a desperate need never to be disgraced, even by a system that is status-bound and unjust. Though Winnie escapes from China, she takes it with her, in all the stubborn, superstitious ways that infuriate her daughter.

What fascinates in "The Kitchen God's Wife" is not only the insistent storytelling, but the details of Chinese life and tradition; not only how people lived, but how their sensibility shines through, most notably in their speech.

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