In Soy Sauce for Beginners Kirstin Chen explores the dichotomy between tradition and modernity. When her marriage collapses our narrator and protagonist, Gretchen Lin, leaves San Francisco behind and returns to her family home in Singapore. Gretchen begins working at her family’s artisanal soy sauce business—hence the title—which was recently embroiled in a food-poising scandal thanks to her cousin’s shortcuts. Her father clearly wants Gretchen to take her cousin’s place as the future head of the company but Gretchen plans on returning to San Francisco, hoping that she can still salvage her crumbling marriage. Soon her mind is occupied by her mother’s health, in particular, her excessive drinking.
Chen’s writing flows easily and the drama between the various characters makes for some entertaining reading material. Without resorting to long descriptions Chen manages to render Singapore, from its customs to its nightlife, so that this setting becomes the most vibrant aspect of her story. What lets the story down somewhat is its narrator. Gretchen spends most of the novel angsting over her husband—who is a dick—and making jabs about the young woman he involved himself with. She is not particularly involved in her job at her family’s company, avoids spending time with her friends, and hangs out with a boring guy she does not particularly care for. I also really hated the whole subplot involving her American friend who is no longer ‘dumpy’ but has transformed into a ‘babe’ everyone loves. She actually works hard, she is respected in a way that Gretchen isn’t, and she ‘steals’ her friends away. And, instead of showing that Gretchen was being jealous over nothing, the story makes this friend into kind of a ‘snake’. Gretchen gave me some strong judgy vibes, especially when it comes to the women around her (I am tired of reading about women ‘bitching’ about each other…we can do better than that).
I wish the narrative had focused less on Gretchen moping about her husband and life, and more time on her interacting with her family and friends. Still, the food descriptions were mouth-watering and I liked the glitzy lifestyle Gretchen and those around her enjoy.
Throughout the course of the story, Gretchen has to reconcile her desires with her father and mother’s expectations of her. An easy read that ultimately manages to have a satisfying ending and that does not surprisingly focus on romance.
my rating: ★★★☆☆
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