UK Publisher: One More Chapter
Genre: Magic realism, romance
At the news of her mother’s death, Natalie Tan returns home to San Francisco’s vibrant Chinatown.
She’s shocked to discover that the neighbourhood is fading, and even more surprised to learn she has inherited her grandmother’s restaurant. Tasked by the community’s seer with cooking up three recipes from her grandmother’s old cookbook, Natalie must bring luck, courage and love to her struggling neighbours – before she can follow her own dreams.
Natalie has no desire to help the community that abandoned her to look after her mother all those years ago. But as love and friendship come knocking, Natalie realises that maybe her neighbours have been there for her all along . . .
Something about this description sounded really cute and cozy. I loved the idea of seeing a character reconnect with her family, her roots, and herself through cooking. I thought the setting sounded charming, and I was 100% up for reading lovely descriptions of delicious food. I was certain this was going to be a lovely, easy read and I was completely right.
There’s a lovely element of magic realism here, a slight twist of fantasy threaded into a story about someone working through the complicated relationship they had with their mother as well as their own grief at her passing. The recurring themes attached to each character are delightful – the mother and her birds, and Natalie and her cooking. In particular, the way she can evoke feelings and emotions through her food. It’s perhaps a combination of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake in its lyrical descriptions, and Simply Irresistible – the classic 1999 romantic comedy where Sarah Michelle Gellar gets the ability to grant emotions through her cooking thanks to a magic crab – with its fluffier tone and heartwarming romance.
The idea of food carrying emotions, and enhancing them, is a theme through culture and folklore and stories. This takes that idea, and also the theme of food building relationships and communities, of traditional recipes passing through families, and builds them all around Natalie’s character journey. The whole story is carried on her trying to marry her dreams with the fears that were forced onto her by her mother, mixed in with a great look at diaspora communities and how they carry their traditions with them, and also the impact of gentrification on these communities – particularly pertinent as the novel is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
What caught me by surprise were the recipes embedded in the text! I haven’t had a chance to try them myself, but each of the key recipes in the book are detailed (with one ingredient glossed over as ‘secret spices’ if I recall correctly). The description of the food in the book was so vivid and dreamy, I felt like I could almost taste it as I read. I came out of it with a massive craving for Chinese food, and the idea that I could cook the recipes to eat as a read it really seemed like a lovely touch. If anyone has tried to cook them, please let me know! I have a very old Kindle so cooking from recipes on it isn’t ideal.
Another wonderful aspect of this was the nuance in Natalie’s relationship with her mother. There were layers to her grief and the complexity of the distance that had developed between them, and how that complex relationship with her mother had tainted and warped the relationship Natalie had with the neighbourhood she grew up in, and her memories of her childhood and neighbours. Lim explores the way the mental health of a parent can impact on a child and how it can ripple through their whole lives with real gentleness, and how it feels to try and handle that with mourning the loss of a parent as much for what could have been than what was. Lim really understands the conflict that comes with that, and the bittersweetness that comes with seeing the situation with the eyes of an adult and the distance of time. The additional pains that come from secrets uncovered, and from trying to work out where you fit in the context of it all, is just so realistically portrayed and handled sympathetically.
There is a romance subplot in this, but it’s a very minor part of the story. In reality, this is a book about refinding roots, grieving complex losses, and coming to terms with missing someone when your relationship with them wasn’t an easy one. It explores both personal and generational trauma, and the connections between families which can become interrupted and twisted, and takes time to show someone processing and unraveling them. There’s an examination both through Natalie’s history and her present actions as to how assuming you know what’s best for someone doesn’t necessarily mean that you do, and all of these alongside a healthy side-eye at gentrification and the sacrifice of diaspora communities for the sake of “development”.
This is a lovely, sweet, stand-alone book, that deals with the bittersweetness of grief alongside healing, and of reconnecting from a history you had left behind due to trauma. Growth and understanding offer new perspectives and allow healing without delegitimising any former pain that Natalie has been through, or devaluing her experiences. All with a sprinkle of magical realism that just adds an extra layer of magic to the story.
- A book that understands that loss can be a combination of mixed emotions, and that healing from trauma doesn’t invalidate the suffering you went through. It looks at a person’s history through the people that surround them, and how complicated it can be to find yourself and where you fit in when your relationships have been tainted and warped.
- The writing is poetic and frankly the descriptions of the food are art. I felt like I could smell and taste every dish, and I have never had such a craving for freshly cooked Chinese food – which was unfortunate, as I read this while everywhere was still locked down, so I couldn’t go hole up in a restaurant and binge. The ambience of my living room is just not the same.
- Sadly, Roselle Lim’s other books aren’t available in ebook in the UK at the moment, and the paperback would have to be imported, which seems like a really tragic oversight. I am in the process of a book clearout and when I have some space I will try and get Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop.