Two stories: An-Mei Hsu, whose mother left the family but returns to take care of Popo when she lies dying; and Lindo Jong, who is contracted into an arranged marriage at age two, married at 16, and uses her intelligence and determination to find a way to escape her marriage and emigrate to America.
There's a controlling metaphor for each story: An-Mei's story is entitled "Scar," and the relevant passage comes from a flashback in her story when she recalls the healing process from having burning soup spilled on her neck as a child:
Every night I cried so that both my eyes and my neck burned. Next to my bed sat Popo. She would pour cold water over my neck from the hollowed cup of a large grapefruit. She would pour and pour until my breathing became soft and I could fall asleep. In the morning, Popo would use her sharp fingernails like tweezers and peel off the dead membranes.
In two years' time, my scar became pale and shiny and I had no memory of my mother. That is the way it is with a wound. The wound begins to close in on itself, to protect what is hurting so much. And once it is closed, you no longer see what is underneath, what started the pain. (47)
Lindo's story is entitled "The Red Candle," a reference to a wedding night ritual where a candle is lit at both ends. "In the morning, the matchmakers was supposed to show the result, a little piece of black ash, and then declare, "This candle burns continuously at both ends without going out. This is a marriage that can never be broken" (59).
On her wedding night, Lindo considers throwing herself into the river, recently swollen by rain. But then
It started to rain again, just light rain. The people from downstairs called up to me once again to hurry. And my thoughts became more urgent, more strange.
I asked myself, What is true about a person? Would I change in the same way the river changes but still be the same person? And then I saw the curtains blowing wildly, and outside the rain was falling harder, causing everyone to scurry and shout. I smiled. And then I realized for the first time I could see the power of the wind. I couldn't see the wind itself, but I could see it carried the water that filled the rivers and shaped the countryside. It caused men to yelp and dance.
I wiped my eyes and looked in the mirror. I was surprised at what I saw... I was strong. I was pure. I had genuine thoughts that no one could see, that no one could ever take away from me. I was like the wind. (58)
Later that night, drawing upon her newfound identification with the wind, Lindo finds a way to leave her husband and blow out his end of the candle, and thus escape the mandate.
I like the way Amy Tan is able to create characters with particular experiences and personalities and habits of mind and then have them tell their stories in ways that link to individual metaphors which are then woven into a symbol system of sorts. It's a risky strategy for a writer to employ, in that if not done well it can feel staged or forced. But I thought in these two sections the stories were interesting and plausible, and the metaphors felt organic.