Lena believes that her mother has an uncanny ability for predicting bad things that will befall the family. For example, she predicted the failure of a bank and her own husband's death. Lena worries what she will say about the house that Lena and her husband, Harold, have bought in Woodside. What will she predict about their future — based on their new home and the location and arrangement of the rooms in it?
To compound the problem, Lena and Harold are having marital difficulties. At present, the problems are manifesting themselves in a quarrel over who should pay for the cat's flea treatment.
When mother and daughter arrive at the house, Mrs. St. Clair is clearly astonished at the enormous amount of money that her daughter and son-in-law paid for the house. Beneath the fancy architectural details, she sees clearly that the house was vastly overpriced — whereupon Lena remembers an incident from her childhood.
To coax eight-year-old Lena to finish her food, Mrs. St. Clair told her that her future husband would have one pockmark for every grain of rice that the child did not eat. Little Lena immediately thought of Arnold, a cruel twelve-year-old boy in the neighborhood, who was indeed pockmarked. She quickly finished her rice. The possibility of Arnold being her future husband became a fearful obsession. She hated Arnold so much that she found "a way to make him die." After seeing a movie about lepers in Africa, Lena gradually stopped eating.
One morning when Lena was thirteen, her father read a newspaper article about Arnold's dying of measles. Lena felt that she was somehow responsible for his death. That night, she gorged herself with ice cream. Later, she vomited it up. Her mother discovered her shivering out on the fire escape, hugging the ice cream carton.
Today, Lena knows that she did not cause Arnold's death, but, nonetheless, she feels that she is still being punished. After all, she concludes, she married Harold — not a perfect match.
Initially, Harold Livotny and Lena worked at the same architectural firm, Livotny & Associates. Harold was a partner; Lena, an associate. Lena convinced Harold to start his own firm. He was unwilling to accept money from her to do so, but he did suggest that she move in with him and pay $500 rent — even though the actual rent was $435. She agreed.
The business got off to a rocky start, but with Lena's support and excellent ideas, the firm prospered. Today, Harold makes seven times the amount of money that Lena does, but they still split almost all the expenses down the middle. They have established a detailed, simplistic way to account for their living expenses. Lena's mother is astonished by this detailed accounting. That night, Harold is surprised to learn from Mrs. St. Clair that Lena does not like ice cream. Heretofore, he's always made Lena pay fifty-fifty for the ice cream. He's never noticed that Lena never ate any.
After her mother goes to bed, Lena initiates an argument with Harold about the way they live. She attempts to redefine their marriage. The argument is interrupted by the sound of glass shattering. The rickety table that Harold designed and made has collapsed and broken a vase in the bedroom where Lena's mother is staying. Upstairs, Lena tells her mother that she knew it would break; her mother asks her, if you knew that this was going to happen, why didn't you do something about what was obviously inevitable?
The table that Harold made as an architectural student is a symbol for Lena and Harold's marriage. Like their relationship, the table is rickety and badly designed — ready to collapse with the slightest provocation. Harold is as oblivious to the table's bad design as he is to the disintegration of his marriage. This fact is evident by the ice cream incident. Harold continues to buy ice cream every week and never notices that Lena never eats any of it. He has no idea that she hates it and that it makes her nauseous. When Mrs. St. Clair points this fact out, Harold completely misinterprets what she is saying. He thinks that she's commenting on Lena's skinny body, that she's made a joke.
Harold is similarly oblivious to the inequality in his relationship with Lena. Under the guise of such modern cliches as "false dependencies," "love without obligation," and "equality," Harold has designed a situation where it's clear to us that Lena has gotten a raw deal. She was co-founder of his architectural firm, providing not only seed money through the rent, as well as constant moral support, but also the creative ideas for the projects. She is the one who thought up the firm's specialty — "theme eating" — which became the underpinning of the business. Yet Harold refuses to recognize her contributions. Indeed, he deliberately prevents her from sharing financial success because he insists on avoiding "favoritism." Lena feels enormous resentment. She likens her husband to Arnold, the pockmarked boy who tormented her as a child. Here, note the similarity between the names "Arn-old" and "Har-old." Finally, Lena regards her husband as another form of punishment that she must endure.
Lena, however, has had problems asserting herself for a long time. As a child, she tried to control her life by restricting the amount of food that she ate. By the time she was a teenager, her obsession with food had turned into anorexia. People who suffer from this condition starve themselves — sometimes to death. It's overwhelmingly a disease of teenage girls.
Lena is still starving herself. She is so thin, in fact, that her mother complains that she has become "so thin now you cannot see her. She like a ghost, disappear." Harold doesn't notice this, either. Lena tries to blame her inability to assert herself on her background. Being Chinese-American, she thinks, makes her "naturally" timid and prone to having feelings of guilt. Rose, her friend, will have none of this rationalization. Rose says, "Why do you blame your culture, your ethnicity?" Lena suggests that it's a problem that all women of her generation face. "I was reading an article about baby boomers, how we expect the best and when we get it we worry that maybe we should have expected more, because it's all diminishing returns after a certain age," she says. Her mother provides the solution: "Then why don't you stop it?" She is referring, of course, to both the table and the marriage. The table was sure to collapse; the marriage seems doomed to fail. "It's such a simple question," Lena realizes. Yet she backs off from saying what must be said. She initiates the fight with Harold but collapses into tears before she can fully make her point. Like a ghost, she lacks the strength to save herself.
partner/associate Partners are people who own a percentage of a business. Lawyers, architects, and accountants, for example, are often partners in their business. As partners, they share in a firm's liability, which means that if the firm is sued, for instance, they all are responsible for the costs. Partners take this risk because they usually make much more money than associates. Associates are salaried employees. They get a set amount of money each pay period — no matter how much money the firm makes.
baby boomers people born between 1946 and 1964. Raised during the affluent post-World War II period, many of these people have high expectations for material success. Some of them, however, like Lena, have discovered that material success does not ensure happiness; they find their lives empty and unsatisfying. Others, like Harold, are very satisfied with the fruits of their labors — he is proud of his fine house and his Jaguar automobile. A baby boomer herself, Tan is especially sensitive to this dichotomy.