A Chapters 1-2
The first two chapters of The Kitchen God’s Wife are narrated by Pearl Brandt, the daughter of Winnie Louie, a Chinese woman who immigrated to the United States in adulthood. Winnie has convinced Pearl to attend an engagement banquet for her cousin in San Francisco. Reluctantly, Pearl agrees and then stays in the city an extra day to attend the funeral of Auntie Du.
During the engagement banquet, Winnie’s close friend Helen tells Pearl she (Helen) has a brain tumor and will be forced to reveal Pearl’s secret (that she has multiple sclerosis) to her mother unless she tells her herself. She hints that her mother also has secrets she may share with her daughter.
The relationship between Winnie and Pearl is strained because the Americanized daughter and her immigrant mother have little in common. The one thing they both understand is their grief, years previously, over the loss of Pearl’s father, Jimmy, who was Winnie’s great love. At the funeral for Auntie Du, Pearl has a breakthrough in which she finally cries for Jimmy. In her will, Auntie Du leaves Pearl her altar to the Kitchen God, a minor deity who, as a mortal, was an abusive husband to his virtuous wife. As a deity, he reports to the Jade Emperor about who has been good and who has been bad.
B Chapters 3-10
Helen has told Winnie, too, of her illness and of the need to bring secrets into the open, so Winnie asks her daughter to sit with her in the kitchen while she tells all of her secrets. Chapters 3 through 24 are told from Winnie’s point of view.
Winnie begins her story by describing her mother, the vain second wife of her wealthy father. When Winnie is six, her mother takes her on a fun-filled trip into the city, where they share wonderful experiences and see exciting things. The next day, Winnie’s mother mysteriously disappears, and Winnie is sent to live with an uncle and his family so as not to remind her father of his missing wife. Winnie is unhappy in the new family because they are not as wealthy and treat her like a guest instead of like a family member. She makes friends with her cousin Peanut, a girl about the same age as Winnie. The two grow into adolescence together, carrying on like sisters.
During a New Year’s festival, Winnie and Peanut go in search of trinkets and fortunes when they meet a charming young man named Wen Fu. He flirts with Peanut and later courts her. Winnie is suspicious of Wen Fu but says nothing. When Wen Fu finds out that Winnie’s family is much wealthier than Peanut’s, he proposes to Winnie. Despite Peanut’s initial resentment, Winnie accepts and seeks her father’s approval for the match. He agrees and explains to his daughter that when she is a wife, she will have to be obedient. He then sends one of his wives into town with Winnie to buy things for her dowry. It is a spectacular spending spree, and Winnie cannot believe the expense being put into her dowry. She later learns that the other daughters were given dowries ten times the size of hers and that her father knew that Wen Fu was from a questionable family.
Soon after the marriage, Wen Fu signs up with the military, as China is recruiting men to defend their country against the invading Japanese. The newlyweds move to Hangchow where Wen Fu trains as a member of the American Volunteer Group led by American pilot Claire Chennault. Winnie eventually discovers that her husband was only accepted because he used his deceased brother’s name and credentials and that he is a coward who retreats when his fleet engages in air battle. Because of his social standing, however, no one challenges him. Wen Fu becomes abusive toward his new wife, often humiliating her sexually. Still, she tries to be a good wife, and her developing friendship with Helen, the wife of another pilot (Long Jiaguo), becomes her only supportive relationship.
C Chapters 11-19
The pilots begin to fly in battle, and their numbers begin to dwindle. Finally, Wen Fu, Winnie, Helen, and Jiaguo flee to distant parts of the country with the air force group. Along the way, they learn of the terrible defeats China is suffering, and they feel fortunate to be alive. Traveling in her last months of pregnancy, Winnie anticipates the birth of her first child and is heartbroken when the baby girl is stillborn. Meanwhile, Wen Fu has become even crueler, especially after he suffers an injury in an auto accident that is his fault. At a military party, Winnie meets a Chinese-American man named Jimmy Louie, and she is immediately drawn to him. They dance and then go their separate ways.
Winnie gives birth to a second daughter, who becomes very ill months later. She goes to get the doctor, who is playing mah jongg with Wen Fu. Wen Fu refuses to let the doctor tend to his daughter, and she dies. When Winnie becomes pregnant again, she has a boy, and she vows that he will never be like his father. She ends several subsequent pregnancies by abortion because she cannot bear the idea of carrying another of Wen Fu’s children. Her attempts to secure a divorce from him only anger him, causing him, more than once, to tear up the papers and rape her.
D Chapters 20-26
After the war, Winnie and Wen Fu part ways with Helen and Jiaguo. Winnie looks forward to getting back to her family and telling her father how terribly Wen Fu has treated her. When they arrive, however, Winnie’s father is a frail man who, having suffered a stroke, is unable to speak. Wen Fu’s family moves in and begins selling off the old man’s precious belongings, as he sits powerless to stop them. Unable to stand her life any longer, Winnie seeks out Peanut, who has escaped her own unhappy marriage. On her way to see Peanut, Winnie runs into Jimmy, and they sit and talk. Winnie sends her son to live with Helen and Jiaguo until she can get away from Wen Fu, but the child dies during a plague while he is away.
When Winnie’s escape plans fall through, Jimmy suggests that she come and live with him. She does, but when word reaches Wen Fu, Jimmy is sent out of the country. He promises to come back for Winnie in two years. For her part in the incident, Winnie is arrested for deserting her husband and causing her son’s death, and she is given the choice between prison and returning to Wen Fu. She chooses prison but is released early thanks to Helen and Auntie Du. She immediately contacts Jimmy, and he asks her to come to America and be his wife. She makes plans to flee the country, including tricking Wen Fu and his new wife into signing divorce papers. Wen Fu finds her, tears up the papers, rapes her, and steals her tickets. Helen arrives and helps Winnie overpower him. They throw his pants out the window and retrieve the tickets. Winnie arrives safely in America just before the communists take over and no one is allowed to leave China. A little less than nine months later, Pearl is born, meaning that her father is probably Wen Fu, not Jimmy.
In response to this dramatic story, Pearl tells her mother about her disease. Winnie promises to help Pearl fight the disease and wonders if it is somehow Wen Fu’s fault. Later, Helen reveals that she does not really have a brain tumor. She made up the story so that Winnie and Pearl would tell each other their secrets. Winnie buys a new deity for the Kitchen God’s altar, only this one is a woman. She names her Sorrowfree and prays to her for her daughter’s health.