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Soy Sauce for Beginners [Kindle Edition]

Kirstin Chen
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (892 customer reviews)

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From the Editor

I'll admit it: finishing Kirstin Chen's debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, made me sad. Not because the ending was unhappy, but because I had to say good-bye to Gretchen, the protagonist. I felt so connected to Gretchen, her loving but troubled family, and their lives in vibrant Singapore that I didn't want their story to end. I felt like I grew along with Gretchen as she navigated painful transitions in her life, and in a little corner of my mind she's still with me, living off the page.

Like Jean Kwok's Girl in Translation or Anna Quindlen's One True Thing, Soy Sauce for Beginners beautifully captures both the joys and the complexities of parent-child relationships. Chen treats all of her characters—Gretchen's mother, struggling with alcoholism; her provincial father; and Gretchen herself, fleeing a failing marriage—with care and honesty. Despite (or maybe because of) the drama of family feuds, new romance, and a business in crisis, the story feels absolutely true to life.

Of course, Soy Sauce for Beginners isn't just about family relationships and life transitions: as the title hints, it's also about Chinese food (described in mouth-watering detail) and soy sauce, the family business. I was fascinated by the scene where visitors to the factory are offered a drink of soy sauce mixed with Sprite. When I asked Kirstin about it, she told me it was based on a real drink offered to her when she toured a factory in Singapore. Then she dared me to try it at home. I accepted the challenge, and I dare you to try it too—it's delicious and unexpected, just like this wonderful book.

- Carly Hoffmann, Acquiring Editor

Book Description

Gretchen Lin, adrift at the age of thirty, leaves her floundering marriage in San Francisco to move back to her childhood home in Singapore and immediately finds herself face-to-face with the twin headaches she’s avoided her entire adult life: her mother’s drinking problem and the machinations of her father’s artisanal soy sauce business.

Surrounded by family, Gretchen struggles with the tension between personal ambition and filial duty, but still finds time to explore a new romance with the son of a client, an attractive man of few words. When an old American friend comes to town, the two of them are pulled into the controversy surrounding Gretchen’s cousin, the only male grandchild and the heir apparent to Lin’s Soy Sauce. In the midst of increasing pressure from her father to remain permanently in Singapore—and pressure from her mother to do just the opposite—Gretchen must decide whether she will return to her marriage and her graduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory, or sacrifice everything and join her family’s crusade to spread artisanal soy sauce to the world.

Soy Sauce for Beginners reveals the triumphs and sacrifices that shape one woman’s search for a place to call home, and the unexpected art and tradition behind the brewing of a much-used but unsung condiment. The result is a foodie love story that will give readers a hearty appreciation for family loyalty and fresh starts.

Selected as one of O Magazine’s “7 Books That Will Transport You to Another World”

Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

When Gretchen Lin returns to her family home in Singapore, her intention is to stay just long enough to decide what to do about the unfaithful husband she left behind in California. While there, she will help her father handle her alcoholic mother’s failing health and lend a hand at the family’s artisanal soy-sauce business, but she intends to return to San Francisco in time for the final year of her doctoral program. After years spent at schools in America, Gretchen no longer sees Singapore as her home. The transition is a difficult one, made more difficult by a scandal threatening to destroy the family business. Still, with the help of her American friend, Frankie, Gretchen may yet come to see the beauty of her homeland and of her family and the traditions it has to offer. Gretchen’s journey of self-discovery forms the backbone of this story about family, tradition, and honor. Foodies will appreciate the behind-the-scenes look at the world of artisanal soy sauce, while others will enjoy Chen’s tribute to her native Singapore. --Cortney Ophoff


The perfect blend of family drama, complicated romance, and behind-the-scenes artisanal brewing of the world's most unsung condiment." Glamour

"Chen’s flavorful prose will have you thinking about the often dismissed condiment in a whole new way." Metro

"Chen keeps the action at a steady pace with well-placed dialogue and setting, making it hard to put down, even for sleep." Webster-Kirkwood Times

“Gretchen’s journey of self-discovery forms the backbone of this story about family, tradition, and honor. Foodies will appreciate the behind-the-scenes look at the world of artisanal soy sauce, while others will enjoy Chen’s tribute to her native Singapore.” Booklist

“Soy Sauce for Beginners is Kirstin Chen’s first novel, and it works like a good recipe, with smooth language and an easily digestible plot …a dialogue based page turner… Readers craving an engaging and readable foodie tale will declare themselves satisfied.” Washington Independent Review of Books

"Soy Sauce for Beginners is an assured debut novel as light and flavorful as the condiment spicing its pages.” —The Straits Times

“A funny and heartfelt novel exploring the intersections of food, family, and culture.” —Hartford Guardian

“Chen navigates the culture with the insight of an insider.” —San Jose Mercury News

"Kirstin Chen's debut is a delicious page-turning treat. Chen captures the zeitgeist of Singapore's new generation in an engrossing, intimately layered tale of love, family, and the discovery of one's true calling. It will also turn every reader into an artisanal soy sauce aficionado willing to settle for nothing but the best." —Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians

"Soy Sauce for Beginners is an engaging story about a young woman's journey through love and friendship, business and family as she seeks her own place in the world. A satisfying and insightful novel." —Jill McCorkle, author of Life After Life

"At the center of this novel is a struggling family business, but its bright heart is the difficult business of family. Written with warmth, umami and humor, Soy Sauce for Beginners considers the intricacies of inheritance and the challenges of safeguarding tradition. Kirstin Chen has written a spirited novel of self-discovery." —Amber Dermont, author of The Starboard Sea

"Kirstin Chen evokes with wonderful brio the conflicts of a family business, and of a family. Reading these vivid pages made me want to catch the next plane to Singapore. Or failing that read another absorbing chapter. A sparkling debut." —Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy

Product Details

  • File Size: 961 KB
  • Print Length: 258 pages
  • Publisher: Amazon Publishing (January 1, 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #25,234 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
64 of 66 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I need to start by mentioning I never knew there was a such thing as an artisanal Soy Sauce! Only after I began reading did I do any research ... the story intrigued me enough to explore the possibility of actually tasting Soy Sauce to understand it, or even more, to try it in Sprite as a unique drink! I was happy to see that, like everything else, I could actually buy some on Amazon.

I expected this to be a romance, and there are overtones of romance, but it is more a story of our places in life. Gretchen is someone who is currently torn in her life - a part of her longing for the past ... another degree, the husband who left her ... and the rest is reaching towards an unknown future. In the midst is her Mother, undergoing dialysis (and dealing with alcoholism), and her father, ready for retirement. Toss in a cousin who has betrayed the principles of the company, the son of a customer who wants romance, and you have tension from every side.

I had considered putting this book to the side, I have a number of others I need to read, but from the first pages it drew me in. I could easily relate to Gretchen and came to see her as a friend. As situations varied, as acquaintances and friends moved around her, some with her best interests in mind, others using her, I truly felt I came to know her, understand her. And, in one long sitting, I read it from beginning to end. And I was sad that it was over when it came to a close.

The setting is in Singapore, but in no way did I ever feel lost or strange. Since Gretchen had spent so much time in San Francisco prior to returning home for this visit, the differences she was feeling gave me insight into the differences in the culture.
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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A delightful story about soy sauce and self discovery December 2, 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
Kirstin Chen's "Soy Sauce for Beginners" is an exceptional debut novel about our ties to our families and our roots. The story takes place in Singapore where the protagonist, Gretchen, goes to Singapore where she was raised, to help in her father's artisanal soy sauce business and to help care for her mother, after a breakup of her marriage in San Francisco. There, she can't help but become involved in the struggles of the family business but also all of the relationships within the family. She returns to her alcoholic mother and all the frustration that revolves around not being able to do anything to change that, to make things better. It's a story about how life moves on and how there are always new starts along with old traditions and about the pull of our backgrounds and their importance to us is something that we can never really escape. I loved her descriptions of life in Singapore as well as her descriptions of the contrasts between there and San Francisco, the culture, customs and climate. Chen did a wonderful job of character development and making me feel like I was right there with Gretchen in Singapore.

I loved her descriptions of the family soy sauce business and the pride they had in making it "the old way" by naturally fermenting it. (It made me go off looking on Amazon for a naturally fermented soy sauce!) It was at times lighthearted and at times serious. I was drawn into the story right away and Chen's writing had me turning the (Kindle) pages so that I read it very quickly, but not wanting it to end.

I found it interesting that Kirstin Chen was born and raised in Singapore. She's a former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, and holds an MFA from Emerson College and a BA from Stanford University. This gives her a unique perspective for this novel. I hope she will be writing more novels because I'll be first in line to read them.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I felt an immediate connection with Gretchen, the protagonist. She is 30 years old and adrift. (Been there! Might still be there!) She has a loving and emotionally complicated relationship with her mother. (Yup!) Her mother's illness (part of it), is easily hid and can be destructive to her and those around her. (Yup, again.) Gretchen spent a lot of years running away from a place she ultimately returned to and made a home there. (YUP!)

Gretchen's grandfather founded a soy sauce company in Singapore decades ago. Her father, uncle and cousin work there now. When Gretchen comes to Singapore after her husband cheats on her, she takes a secretarial job at the factory. I never knew the art and chemistry involved with the making of soy sauce and I found it fascinating. The reverence with which the family treats soy sauce is amazing.

And then there's the food! I love Asian cuisine of almost any kind: Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian. The detailed descriptions of some of the meals in this still my humble palate! I got so hungry while I was reading, I had to fix myself a (boring old) snack halfway through reading it! And I hope to be brave enough one day to try the Sprite drink.

Whenever I felt like I knew what was going to happen next, it didn't happen! Gretchen's relationships with everyone-her parents, her husband, the new man in her life, her best friends-felt real, felt *true* because they did not follow the typical storyline. I liked that about the book very much. Gretchen was not always at her best during the book and I liked that as well. She wasn't "perfect," she was trying to figure her life and herself out. Sometimes that can be messy, ugly and/or hurtful. The author doesn't shy away from that.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
Interesting.different subject matter
Published 21 hours ago by Gwendolyn Jones
4.0 out of 5 stars I like this story a lot.
This story about a woman finding out what makes her happy is a real look into family interaction as you grow up ,then add into it a family business. Wow what a story !
Published 3 days ago by Kindle Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Kindle lending library - Surprisingly good story.
Interesting story. Fast read. Enjoyed the images the author created related to Singapore and parents/daughter relationships. I would enjoy reading more by this new author.
Published 4 days ago by maribeth
2.0 out of 5 stars Beginner Author
Slightly above "chick lit" - a bit self-absorbed, newly 30-year old's problems. The most interesting aspect was the slices of upper-class Singapore culture. Read more
Published 5 days ago by Boomer Woman
3.0 out of 5 stars Three Stars
Enjoyed learning about Singapore and it's scenery. That's about it really.
Published 10 days ago by Chris
3.0 out of 5 stars alright
Great simple read.
Got kinda dry towards the middle.
Published 13 days ago by Jenna
5.0 out of 5 stars novel about singapore
Really enjoyed this book. Fast paced and we'll written.
Published 18 days ago by Amazon Customer
4.0 out of 5 stars Great life lesson and beautiful story
I really liked this book a lot. I would listen to the audio version at night and just didn't want to go to sleep, it always kept my attention. Read more
Published 21 days ago by Donna McGuinness
4.0 out of 5 stars soul soy searching
Her soul was found through searching in a dot sauce factory. She found herself, her voice and who she was after spending time in her family's factory. Read more
Published 24 days ago by Georgia Hale
5.0 out of 5 stars Great story for reflection!
Easy read, thought provoking and entertaining. Tradition meets today's expectations - family values and loyalties ... it was very enlightening.
Published 1 month ago by Jen in Concord
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More About the Author

Kirstin Chen is the author of Soy Sauce for Beginners, featured in USA Today's "New Voices", an O, The Oprah Magazine book to pick up now, and a Glamour book club pick. A former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, she holds an MFA from Emerson College and a BA from Stanford University. She was born and raised in Singapore and currently lives in San Francisco, where she's at work on her second novel, set on a tiny island off the coast of southern China in 1958. Visit her at

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