The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

Pearl loves her mother, Winnie – of course she does – but she cannot help feeling so often misunderstood by her as well. It is likely this reason that underlies her reluctance to share with her mother that she’s been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, even though she’s terrified of what it might mean for her future. Likewise, Winnie has secrets of her own – in fact, most of her early life in China before she immigrated to the US has been kept from Pearl. An intervention by Pearl’s “aunt” Helen may change all of this.

Here is yet another epic saga of hardship and tragedy, teaching us so much about Chinese culture and history, but making us work so hard for it. There is rich, colorful detail about the years of the second world war, the angry relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese, the terror of living with the threat of destruction by the Japanese and the shifting internal forces in China. Moreover, being a woman in China has never been easy, and we are bestowed with stark reminders of this in many vivid, brutal scenes in this novel.

What is hard to endure, however, is the overbearing, martyred tone of the narration of Winnie’s story. Yes, she suffers and yes we feel her pain, but it is so utterly relentless that it becomes hard to sustain belief that so much evil can befall one person. There are few if any breaks from the constant tension, little respite from her search for hope or love- only at the very end is there any spark of light, but by that time, we’re just exhausted. While I saw the beauty and nobility of her character, I was also very close to giving up on her many times, I have to admit.

There is certainly much to be learned from this novel, but it comes at a cost. If you’re willing to put in the work, it may be worth it – but I feel like it is work. Is that what reading is? Up for discussion…!

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

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Violet, raised by her American single mom, the owner of an upscale courtesan house in Shanghai, is used to getting her way.  As she spies on everyone in the house, including her own mother, she learns that her mother manages to get her way, as well.  She watches as her mother navigates the business world, bringing Chinese and foreign businessmen together in order to create opportunities for these men.  In doing so, she also brings them into her business.  Life is good for Violet, until the day she learns of the existence of her father (who is Chinese, much to her shock) and a long-lost brother whom her mother feels she must go to America to see.  In a twist of circumstance brought about by a devious suitor, Violet and her mother are separated and Violet’s life is set upon a trajectory of hardship, of love, and of heartbreak.

The story is beautiful and tragic and heart-wrenching.  We follow Violet as well as her mother, Lucia, through their lives which are complicated and also made beautiful by love.  The issue of Chinese and American cultures clashing comes out frequently and creates a lot of the conflict in the story.  The other characters in the book are also quite beautiful and add greatly to the depth of this saga.

My only criticism of this book is the editing – I feel that parts of the story were drawn out almost to the point of boredom.  Violet is compelled to take a long journey that lasts a couple of weeks.  It is a very difficult journey, that is clear.  But the number of pages used to describe every obstacle – almost each stone that was in their way – was truly onerous to plod through.  There were a number of parts like this that could have/should have been abbreviated somewhat.

That said, it is still quite a stirring tale of ultimately 3 generations of very strong women who overcome their adverse circumstance, almost against all odds.  Although the reader must wade through excessive detail, it is ultimately a very inspiring and up-lifting.