Books on Chinese-American Culture
By Roselle Lim
Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, current times
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
“It’s not a crime to want to have everything—love, money, success.”
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With the right director and some changes to the romantic subplot, Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune would make a damn good movie!
All the elements of a good movie are here—a sweet and magical story about the importance of community, the power of food, the stigma of mental illness, and the need to follow your dreams. It all takes place against the fading world of San Francisco’s Chinatown as it fights off pending gentrification.
Most importantly, it’s about food and the power it has to change people’s lives.
That being said, I can’t give this book a rating any higher than 3 stars. It might sound quite contradictory after raving about a future movie version, but let me explain. First, a summary and then my thoughts.
A Summary of Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune
Natalie Tan is traveling around the world when suddenly she learns that her estranged mother has passed away. Seven years ago, they had a falling out when her mother refused to support her decision to become a chef.
She flies home to San Francisco to take care of her mother’s funeral. Her mother had been an agoraphobe and hadn’t left her apartment in years.
The best part of the book is the setting. Her mother’s home is an apartment above an abandoned restaurant in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Natalie, though, has negative memories of the people in her neighborhood. She feels that they abandoned her to deal with her mother’s mental health issues by herself.
The restaurant that the apartment is above was the family’s restaurants run by Natalie’s grandmother—a renowned chef in the neighborhood. Natalie inherits the property and decides to reopen her grandmother’s restaurant.
Natalie visits a neighborhood fortune teller who reads her tea leaves and tells her that her restaurant will successeed only if she helps three people in the neighborhood by cooking each person a particular dish.
Luckily, her grandmother left a book of old recipes. The recipes include notes indicating who these dishes should be cooked for (someone who lacks courage or someone who’s experiencing marriage discord). By eating these dishes, the people’s problems will go away.
Natalie cooks the dishes. But something goes wrong and Natalie needs to find out why and how to fix it.
My Thoughts on Natalie Tan’s Books of Luck and Fortune
The Magical Realism:
This is a book of magical realism. But it was done in such a subtle way that I didn’t even notice it until about halfway or maybe it was two-thirds of the way through the book (Her tears turn to crystals and a statue sheds gold). Perhaps as a movie the magical realism would be more apparent.
Of course, the fact that food has magical properties is also magical realism as well. This is more apparent. It reminded me of the book and movie, Like Water for Chocolate.
A lot of what I liked about this book was touched upon at the beginning of this review. Here Chinatown is depicted as a place that is slowly dying. Businesses are going through a rough time—the shelves are empty and customers are few.
Ruthless real estate agents are hounding the old residents to sell to tech millionaires so that can transform the old neighborhood into a hipster hot spot filled with lululemon shops, cafes, and Apple Genius Bars, and condos for the wealthy.
Lim paints a vivid picture of Chinatown in way that made me feel like I was there.
The food element is what made me want to read the book in the first place. I love, love, love books about food. I probably love food more than books and travel. I especially love Chinese food and consider myself a pretty good cook.
The book is full of recipes and descriptions of Chinese food. It’s hard not to start craving dumplings and Mapo tofu.
Another of my favorite elements of the book are the side characters. Celia, Mr. Wu, Older Shen are all interesting characters.
Natalie is also a likeable character.
Storylines and themes:
There are a lot of storylines going on in the book. Some work and some don’t.
Gentrification: My absolute favorite storyline is the gentrification of Chinatown. I was unaware of what was happening in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Importance of community: I think a lot of us fantasize about living in a close-knit community where neighbors look out for each other, don’t judge each other, and get together for dinners or barbecues. Many communities around the United States have lost that closeness. Having a strong community is actually quite important for the mental health of people. Read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers (Amazon | Bookshop.org), where he looks at studies done of people who live in tight-knit communities having less stress and less heart disease than those who don’t.
Mother-daughter relationships: Another theme commonly found in books on Chinese-American culture is the relationship between mother and daughter. The grandmother, mother, and daughter all have their issues and these issues impact the relationship between them and their relationship with others.
Mental illness: The mother suffered from agoraphobia. This is an interesting storyline because Chinese culture has a dysfunctional way of dealing with mental illness. They sweep it under the rug. Something that is not spoken about doesn’t exist.
Romance: The lover story is the biggest clunker of the book. It’s not the main storyline—more like a subplot.
The romance did not belong in this book. It was silly and just did not make sense. It should have been omitted entirely or written in a completely different way. Daniel and Natalie meet when Daniel smells her dumplings from blocks away (this is magical realism). He comes to her restaurant a couple of times to eat her dumplings. Natalie falls head-over-heels in love with him.
They go on one or two dates, where Daniel expresses his love for her. It seemed so unbelievable that I thought for sure he was a conartist trying to swindle Natalie out of her prime Chinatown real estate. No man except for someone who’s got mental issues or is swindling someone would ever talk like that on a first or even second date. No one would write a love story this convoluted.
Natalie whines throughout the book about how much she misses him every day. How can she miss him if she barely knows him?????? Ugh! And her mother just died! Does she even have the mental space to fall in love?
The writing was mixed for me. I like the vivid descriptions of the setting and food.
“Her store was small but cozy. Pastel vases presented fresh pink peonies on the windowsills while Teresa Tang sang through the speakers. My lifelong love affair with tea had begun here at a very young age. I’d had my formal introduction to rooibos, matcha, chai, maté, and pu’erh, all seducing me with their floral, fruity, earthy scents.”
“I combined garlic, five-spice, black peppercorns, Thai chilies, and paprika in a large bowl for the seasoning. I tumbled two pounds of chicken wings out of their brown paper wrappings and into the waiting bowl, where I kneaded the pungent mixture into them, squeezing the spices into the meat like an experienced massage therapist. Another bowl full of Shaoxing rice wine awaited the wings as the next step after their rigorous massage. They soaked and relaxed, basking in the pool of wine to become drunken like their name.”
Metaphors are a necessary component in books. They make the writing more vivid and emotional.
BUT you can really overdo it with the metaphors as well. And that’s one of the problems here. Metaphor, metaphor, metaphor ad nauseum!
The dialogue between Daniel and Natalie is bit awkward. People don’t really talk like that. I’ve already mentioned the undeveloped nature of the relationship. But the awkward dialogue between the two adds to my dislike of their relationship.
The Cultural Element
I love books about Chinese culture. I lived in China for 7.5 years and I was at one time married to someone from China, so I’m pretty familiar with the culture. There are lots of elements of Chinese-American culture—the food, the family relationships, the respect for elders. One thing I learned (not sure if it’s true) is that if one is invited somewhere, people in Chinese culture feel obligated to go. They’ll show up even if they don’t want to.
But here’s what really, really, really ruined the book for me: the audio-version! I borrowed it through my local library. Audio versions can enhance a book, but they can also harm it if done poorly. The person who narrated the book had this annoyingly whispey and enraptured way of speaking that grated on my nerves. It made the book sound like a cheap harlequin romance. Every single sentence was spoke like this.
The way the male voices were spoken sounded too much like a woman putting on a fake male accent. It just didn’t work.
Whatever you do: skip the audio-version.
Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune is Roselle Lim’s first novel. Her most recent novel is Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop (Amazon | Bookshop.org). Lim grew up in the Philippines and moved to Canada when she was a child.
I’d love to see a book with a Filipino main character.
I think Lim has a lot of potential here and even though I gave her book 3 stars, I think she’s going to one day write a 5-star bestseller. Keep on including elements of food, magic, and iconic settings into the books like this. Work on the writing and get rid of unnecessary romances.
- Natalie – main character
- Miranda – Natalie’s mother
- Ms. Tai – the fortune teller and owner of a tea shop
- Celia – her mother’s friend
- Mr. Wu – he owns a restaurant in the neighborhood; he doesn’t like Natalie
- Daniel – Natalie’s love interest
- Older Shen – a bookstore owner that Natalie tries to help
- The Chiu’s – husband and wife who aren’t getting along
More Posts on China
My Favorite Books on Chinese-American Culture
- Dream’s of Joy – By Lisa See
- Shanghai Girls – By Lisa See
- On Gold Mountain – By Lisa See
- The Kitchen God’s Wife – By Amy Tan
- The Joy Luck Club – By Amy Tan
- Everything I Never Told You – By Celeste Ng
- Chemistry – By Weike Wang
- Everything Here is Beautiful – By Mira T. Lee
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