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Soy Sauce for Beginners Hardcover – International Edition, January 7, 2014
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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
“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
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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. In fact, the book opens complete with a discussion of the weather pattern in Singapore - in polite language they have two seasons, Hot and dry and Hot and wet. In impolite terms ... well, Amazon won't let me put that in my review.
This is not a book about friends, although friends are in the story. This is not a book about family, although it carries the plot along. This is a story about life, and challenges, and decisions, and how we handle them. Until the very end we aren't sure what Gretchen's choices will be or how the story will end, but as the story plays out, we become convinced with her that she is really doing what she should do.
Three cheers for Gretchen - and for a wonderful time reading her story.
The plot, however, is unmotivating. The main character, whiny doormat Gretchen, actually becomes increasingly unlikable towards the end of the book as she alienates her best friend. Her transformation is, supposedly, from a flighty, uninspired professional student to a dedicated leader of her family business, however I'm not convinced she has any more passion for her job than she did her graduate degrees. Reading between the lines and knowing Singaporean society, there is some believability in the character's choice to ally with her family over her personal interests and friends, but Chen doesn't depict Gretchen as convincingly non-filial at any point, so opting for the family business seems like an insignificant change driven by a single conversation with a production assistant.
Throughout the first half of the book I kept waiting for a good metaphor or an exciting turn of events. Unfortunately, this work is, as other reviewers point out, a Lifetime TV movie in print. If the character were endearing or relatable, the book could work as Chick Lit, but there's a near total absence of humor. Gretchen is the downer friend you eventually stop calling because she's mired in self-defeat. A path out of the doldrums is compelling personally, but Soy Sauce for Beginners does not tell the story in a way that's rewarding for the reader.
I'll start with the positive. Ms. Chen has a mastery of the language which allows the reader to feel fully immersed in what she describes. At the beginning of the story, she vividly describes the climate in Singapore, and does it so well, that I almost feel like it is a memory from my own past when I think about it, despite the fact that I have never been to Singapore.
My main issue with Soy Sauce for Beginners has already been pointed out by other reviewers: the ending was rather abrupt. Everything was tied up neatly and quickly, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. My issue was that it was just too quick and too neat. She went from being a woman floundering between two countries, two men, and two possible careers to a woman who had everything figured out within a span of about 2 days. I would have liked to have seen a little more character development (and maybe a little more drama where the men were concerned) over a longer period of time to make her choice a little more believable.
Despite this criticism, I still found it an enjoyable story, and I would be willing to read more from this writer.
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