The opening narrator of the novel, Pearl, is a young woman living in San Jose, California. She is the American-born daughter of a Chinese mother, Winnie Louie and a Chinese-American father, Jimmy Louie. As a result she is raised in a kind of limbo between two worlds, and, by the time we get to know her when she is in her forties, she is more American than Chinese, is married to an American man, has two American girls, and has a sad distance between herself and her mother.
Pearl does not want to attend her cousin's wedding reception because she has no desire to see her family. Her husband is always the only white person at her family functions, and it appears that she feels out of place, even within her own family at times. She is unfamiliar, at the beginning of the novel, with many of the customs of her Chinese heritage and finds herself not understanding the rituals of Auntie Du's Buddhist funeral. And yet, the gap that exists between her and her mother, which symbolizes the gap between herself and her heritage also, saddens her. She is hurt by this gap but has not, until now, attempted to close or bridge this gap. In fact, she keeps secrets from her mother, just as her mother keeps secrets from her. This is not to say that she does not love her mother, because, as the book progresses, we come to the realization that there is in fact a deep love that unites them. What in fact separates the two, more than anything, is that they do not understand each other.
It has been said that Amy Tan has not rounded off the story of Pearl as well as Winnie's and that the character of Pearl is not as three dimensional and full as Winnie. There is, however, a reason for this. It is important that Pearl is the character that does most of the listening in the novel, as Winnie tells the story of her life. This position likens her to us and illustrates that just as Winnie is trying to make her daughter understand Winnie's past and is trying to bring Pearl closer by telling her about her life, so is Amy Tan, as a writer, trying to bring us into her own Chinese-American experience. As Pearl gains understanding, so do we.
Pearl goes through a transformation and a change. At the beginning of the novel, she was still the hesitant fatherless daughter of a Chinese mother who did not want to become involved in the complications of associating with her Chinese family. And yet, even after just one meeting with her mother, Pearl seems to become pensive. After she receives the altar from Auntie Du's will and after her mother has told Cleo and Tess the story of The Kitchen God's Wife, Pearl seems to begin to look at the house differently. When her husband complains about how ugly the house is, Pearl can only say, "Umm." This uncertainty, by the end of the novel, turns into understanding as a connection is forged between her and her mother and between her life and her past.