I picked this up thinking it would be a sweet romance featuring Asian-American characters who cook, and while it definitely has the latter, the former is merely an uninteresting subplot featuring the dreaded insta-love. This is definitely more contemporary fiction than romance, which made my genre-loving heart sad. Actually, a lot about this book made me sad, but before I get there, a quick description of plot:
Natalie Tan always wanted to run her own restaurant but her agoraphobic single mom did everything to discourage her teenage dreams. Natalie rebelled by saving up money to go to culinary school, but after flunking out in her first year, took off to travel the world and gain culinary experience by cooking in order to fund her travels. When her mother unexpectedly dies, Natalie returns to their home in San Francisco’s Chinatown to discover that she’s been left her grandmother’s legendary, and long-shuttered, restaurant. At first mistrustful of the neighbors whom she believed neglected her and her mother as she was growing up, she comes to realize that she’s a necessary part of the neighborhood and strives to help rebuild it, saving it from gentrification through flights of magical realism.
Sounds amazing, right? My first clue that something was off about this book was the fact that the food descriptions did absolutely nothing for me. I am a reader highly susceptible to writing-induced food cravings, so to only feel a slight stirring of “hmm, I should go get dim sum” towards the end of a book about Asian cuisine, the food I grew up with and crave most, is disquieting to say the least. I also found myself irritated with the chef’s recipes included. It’s fine that they don’t include measurements, but to then insist that any one recipe will make a set amount of food is disingenuous at best. I don’t know how much experience Roselle Lim has with working in a restaurant but, food aside, some of the stuff in here was utterly mind-boggling. By the time I read that Natalie didn’t think she needed anyone but herself (no waitstaff, no host, no dishwasher) in order to run her admittedly small restaurant, I was absolutely done with the culinary aspect of this novel.
So what about the fantasy aspects? Could they save the book from its astonishing lack of food realism? Alas, too much of the fantastic stuff felt strictly by-the-numbers. Natalie cries tears of salt crystal that her mother collects in a bowl, but aside from that and the one big plot twist towards the end (well, “twist” if you don’t read much speculative fiction,) no one sees the admittedly cool effects except for Natalie herself. That’s less magical realism than a vivid imagination.
But the worst thing about this book was the fact that the characterization made no sense. It was truly shocking to me that no one line read this book and pointed out the many inconsistencies. Like, I get giving a pass to the cooking, since not everyone has cooked professionally, and the magical stuff, since not everyone magicks professionally either, but honestly trying to make us believe that Miranda Tan, Natalie’s mother, was her biggest cheerleader when she’d done SO MUCH to make her kid not believe in herself? I appreciated the depiction of Miranda’s agoraphobia and depression and how little understood those are in Asian culture, but being mentally ill doesn’t automatically make you a strong person. Being a restless perfectionist like Qiao, Miranda’s mom, doesn’t make you a strong person either. I understand Natalie wanting to forgive her mother and get to know her grandmother better via the writings they left her, but her antecedents were mildly interesting at best and seriously problematic at worst. It also bothered me that Natalie got so much shit for sticking up for herself. As an Asian-American, I understand the guilt that comes with leaving the nest but maybe it would have been nice to see an acknowledgment of reciprocal culpability from the people representing Asian culture around her, and not in the form of an extremely unlikely speech from the worst of them?
Maybe I’m being too hard on this book, but I’m just so disappointed. I was really rooting for it because it boasts all the elements I love but it kinda sucked.