In January 1990, Pearl Brandt's mother, Winnie Louie, has convinced Pearl of her family duty to attend the engagement dinner for a Kwong cousin — a member of the extended Louie-Kwong family. The visit requires Pearl, her husband Phil, and their two young daughters to drive fifty miles from San Jose to San Francisco for the banquet at a restaurant. They must also stay overnight for the funeral of Grand Auntie Du to be held the day after the party.
Here, we meet all the major present-day characters and learn something of their individual concerns, fears, and hopes:
- The communication between Pearl and her mother, Winnie, is strained and awkward. Each readily misinterprets what the other is saying. Pearl does not seem able to confide in or talk companionably with her mother.
- Pearl has been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) but has not been able to tell her gabby mother and has finally given up trying.
- Pearl and her husband, Phil, both seem apprehensive about the MS; Pearl, a speech clinician in the public school system, dislikes gestures of sympathy from others. Phil, a pathologist, tries to minimize the stress in their home lives while informing himself about medical advances in the treatment of MS and performing periodic "safety checks" on Pearl's reflexes and strength.
- Helen Kwong has been Winnie's friend for over fifty years and, with Winnie, has co-owned the Ding Ho Flower Shop in Chinatown for twenty-five years, ever since the death of Winnie's husband, Jimmy Louie. Helen is referred to as Winnie's sister-in-law by a previous marriage.
- Helen has learned about Pearl's MS. To Pearl, Helen reveals her own brain tumor, which the doctors call benign, but which she believes is terminal. Helen urges Pearl to tell her mother about the multiple sclerosis. If she doesn't, Helen herself will do so in the clearing of the air that customarily accompanies the Chinese New Year.
- Auntie Du was Helen's aunt, but Winnie is the one who has looked out for her interests for many years. At ninety-seven, energetic Auntie Du was injured in a bus accident and died of a concussion in the hospital after seeming to be on the mend.
Auntie Du's Buddhist funeral is confusing to the Brandts, especially to the children, whose arguments result in their removal from the ceremony by their Caucasian father. Amid the smell of incense, whirring video camera, wails of hired mourners, and chants of saffron-robed monks, the assembled family achieves little genuine mourning. Pearl begins crying during the ceremony. Winnie and Pearl both realize that Pearl is finally crying for her father, Jimmy Louie, who died over twenty-five years earlier; at that time, Pearl refused to grieve.
Auntie Du has left to Pearl her table-top Chinese altar to the Kitchen God, who watches over everyone's behavior, deciding "who deserves good luck, who deserves bad." Winnie tells Pearl and her family the story of the Kitchen God and his wife.
The novel begins in January 1990 in California, mostly in San Francisco. Amy Tan opens her novel on an amusing and disturbing montage — the conjunction of a betrothal and a funeral. The thematic alliance of love and death reduces life to its simplest terms and introduces the conflicts that lurk beneath the surface actions of people who conceal their true feelings.
The gathering of the Kwong and Louie families for a cousin's engagement banquet and the funeral of Auntie Du become the background against which are revealed excuses, animosities, old grievances, and regrets. A kaleidoscope of scenes pairs mother with daughter, aunt with niece, Caucasian son-in-law with Chinese brother-in-law, grouchy children with a loving "Ha-bu" — all weaving through the testy relationship between two crafty, strongly bonded septuagenarians, Winnie and Helen.
The novel's exposition bursts with examples of the theme of illusion versus reality. Interlacing the action of seemingly congenial family behavior are deceptions and discrepancies such as these:
- Roger, a thirty-year-old man whose two previous marriages have failed, answers to Bao-bao, meaning "precious baby."
- Auntie Du appears unhurt in a bus accident, then dies of an undetected concussion.
- Pearl carries out her duty to her extended family with seeming grace, but actually with reluctance. A Chinese-American woman, Pearl is so removed from China that she recognizes few Chinese sentences or written characters.
- Pearl is privately troubled about her multiple sclerosis and her future with it, although she shrugs off expressions of concern and has not yet told her mother that she has the disease.
- Pearl's husband, Phil, talks around the subject of her MS and yet tries to protect his wife from stress by denying her intellectual need to debate and challenge ideas.
- Helen worries that she is dying of a brain tumor diagnosed as benign.
- Roger serves as a pallbearer for Auntie Du after suggesting that his family sue the bus company for a million dollars.
- Mourners — some of them paid — wear the face of sorrow and families attempt to follow old social and religious patterns that no longer have meaning.
- Pearl's children wonder if the body at the funeral is a woman sleeping at the dinner table. Distracted, their concerns quickly turn to what kind of ice cream they will have when they leave the funeral.
- Pearl openly expresses grief at Auntie Du's funeral — grief which is actually for her father and has been long suppressed. This emotional catharsis suggests that her mourning is tainted with self-pity and fear of her own future incapacitation and death from MS.
- While revealing such thematic material, Tan does not intend for her characters to mire themselves in recriminations or for her readers to slog through a grief-sodden terrain. Anguish and sorrow are masterfully balanced by lighter moments such as these:
- Cleo's reference to wanting to see dingbats in the zoo after her father uses the word to refer to Pearl's cousin Mary
- Helen's reference to Pearl's "multiple neurosis" as well as her own "B-9" tumor
- Roger's reference to "pumping iron" as a warm-up for pall-bearing
- Uncle Henry's videotaping of the funeral, including both the postured entrance and the awkward exit of Pearl's children
- Winnie's comment that the women hired as mourners make a better living that way than if they cleaned houses
- the funeral banner that falls and drapes itself across Auntie Du's body
- Winnie's pride in her skill of saving money on tofu and toilet paper.
The Chinese legend of the Kitchen God and his wife, as told by Winnie to the Brandts at the end of Chapter 2, provides a partial parallel for the story of Winnie's own life, which will become the main narrative of the novel.
herbal medicine Records dating to the eighteenth century B.C. indicate that Chinese healers depended on herbal cures to defeat disease and restore balance and energy through a holistic regimen of acupuncture and herbs. Herbal remedies now draw a widening range of Western supporters and users.
concussion an injury to the brain or spinal cord resulting from a sharp blow or fall.
multiple sclerosis (MS) a chronic nerve disease, of unknown origin and as yet incurable, that gradually destroys the myelin insulating coat on the surface of nerve fibers. As it progresses to different parts of the nervous system, it may be accompanied by such symptoms as tremors, lack of coordination, unsteady gait, mental disorientation, impaired vision, numbness, and paralysis. Onset may be followed by decades of remission; emotional trauma can trigger a relapse. However, average life expectancy for the MS patient today is more than thirty-five years after its onset and can be extended through systematic self-care and adjustment of lifestyle. Also, medication and therapy may lessen its severity and improve the individual's mental outlook.
art deco a boldly geometric style in architecture and home furnishings characterized by clean lines; often constructed from chrome, glass, or shiny plastic. Art deco — a brash break with traditional materials and classic lines — dominated the fashion world in the 1920s. Pearl's bedroom furniture, dating from her teens, is so out-of-date that it appears to have cycled back into style.
pop-beads an inexpensive costume jewelry common in the 1960s, made of individual soft plastic beads the wearer can link together into necklaces and bracelets of any desired length — or, in this case, into letters of the alphabet.
ancestor memorials shrines to deceased family members maintained out of deep respect, filial piety, and family duty. Honor and service to ancestors require gifts and periodic cleaning of burial sites. Relatives living away from ancestor memorials may contract with local professional mourners to carry out their family responsibilities. (Note: In Chapter 19, Shanghai's patriots retaliate against those who collaborated with the Japanese by defacing family grave plots.)
Buddhist funerals The Chinese Buddhist ritual described here involves preparing the body for the afterlife, providing food for the journey, inscribing lucky characters on the casket or on parchment scrolls, mourning, and intoning the mantra, a meditational chant.
Cantonese, Shanghainese, Mandarin dialects of the Sino-Tibetan language family, second only in number of speakers to the Indo-European language family (which includes English). The many dialects of Chinese serve over seven hundred million speakers from China, Southeast Asia, and Tibet. Mandarin serves the largest number of speakers as the standard written and spoken language — over ninety percent of all Chinese use it. Shanghainese, a dialect within Mandarin, is spoken in the environs of Shanghai, and Cantonese is the dialect of Canton (now Guangzhou), Southern China, and Hong Kong.
Christmas crèche a traditional scene representing the birth of Jesus in an animal stall in Bethlehem, often displayed by Christians during the celebration of Christmas; a crèche usually includes the figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, and often angels, shepherds, three kings, and animals.
a Chinese version of Freud Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis. His name now suggests the existence of hidden reasons and causes for an individual's behavior.
Shiites a political wing of the Islamic faith that maintains allegiance to Ali, a cousin and successor to Mohammed, whom less dogmatic Muslims consider the only prophet of Allah, or God. Iraq is the stronghold of the shia, or a party composed of Shiites.
Chinese New Year a fifteen-day Chinese festival that occurs between January 21 and February 19. The focus of celebration is the payment of debts, housecleaning, and the ending of quarrels to prepare the way for a peaceful new year.
the Holy Ghost In Christian religious doctrine, God is a Trinity — the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (or Holy Spirit).
Amitaba the spiritual guide summoned by the Buddhist monks to escort Auntie Du from her earthly existence to the afterlife. Amitaba is a Buddha who rules over paradise while enjoying endless bliss. (Note: The cry to Amitaba recurs in Chapter 12 as shoppers in the Nanking marketplace drop to the ground during the bombing and call on the heavenly guide to end their pain and terror.)
Cultural Revolution In the mid-1960s, the Chinese Communist Party under Chairman Mao Tsetung demoted or purged from the Party all complacent, disloyal, or weak party members. The revitalization of hard-line communism, often referred to as the Cultural Revolution, was led by the Red Guard and fueled by the fanaticism of Mao's wife, Chiang Ch'ing, ultimately degenerating into terrorism, victimization, torture, murder, and anarchy. In 1967, under internal and international duress for human rights violations, Mao curbed the Red Guard's power to avenge private animosities in the name of Party enhancement.
Zen a mystical form of Buddhism that dates from the Tao Te Ching (The Way of Life), a brief sixth-century B.C. religious and ethical manual urging seekers to follow the path of virtue. The originator of Taoist study was Lao Tzu. Today, various forms of Zen influence most of the Orient. The study of Zen has also expanded in many parts of the West, including the United States.
potstickers a slang name for steamed dim sum, a savory Cantonese dumpling used as an appetizer or canape.
tofu a smooth, white soybean curd, a staple in Oriental cooking because of its availability, digestibility, high protein content, and adaptability to numerous recipes, including soups, stir fry, main dishes, and salads.
See's candies a brand of chocolates especially popular in California.