|Soy Sauce for Beginners by Kirstin Chen, pub. Januar 2014, 256 pg.|
It’s not often that a book comes along and completely sweeps me off my feet, but that’s exactly what Kristen Chen’s debut novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, does. With extremely elegant writing and a story that is relatable on many levels, this book kept me turning pages until there were no more left to turn.
When Gretchen Lin finds out her husband is cheating on her, she packs her bags and leaves their home in California. She returns to her family’s home in Singapore where she takes a temporary job at the family artisanal soy sauce company, Lin’s Soy Sauce. As she struggles to figure out how to cope with her husband’s betrayal, Gretchen must also navigate the trials of reconnecting with old friends, her mother’s illness and alcohol addiction, and figuring out what, exactly, she wants to do with her life.
There were many things I loved about this book, but the biggest one is right in the title. Gretchen’s family’s soy sauce company produces artisanal sauces. Unlike the dark brown, watery sauce many of us are familiar with, they use natural fermentation processes and no chemicals to produce a light, complex sauce. Little facts about artisanal soy sauce are scattered throughout the book, and it was absolutely fascinating to learn about. I never expected to find something as mundane as soy sauce so interesting!
The soy sauce company is the crux of this story. When Gretchen returns to Singapore, Lin’s is recovering from a scandal caused by her cousin’s poor business decisions. Her father wants her to step up and take on more responsibility at the company, but Gretchen is determined to go back to California to finish the music degree she is pursuing at the start of the next semester.
I really enjoyed that, unlike so many books published recently, romantic love wasn’t a driving force in this novel (although there is a nice, semi-romantic sub-plot). Instead, the focus is very much on family and friendship. Gretchen’s relationship with her parents is rocky. She sees her father as too passive, and she can’t understand how her mother continues to drink in spite of her kidney failure.
Her friendships are equally as rocky. Her coworkers see her only as the boss’s daughter. Her childhood friends have lives that she doesn’t feel she fits into, even though they try to include her. Instead of embracing opportunities to reconnect and make new friendships, Gretchen shuts everyone out.
Overall, Chen paints a beautiful picture of life in Singapore. Gretchen’s problems and life are extremely realistic, and you get really involved in her decisions and their consequences. Like every person, Gretchen makes mistakes and less-than-wise decisions, and I frequently wanted to either shake her by the shoulders or hug her. It’s easy to get emotionally invested in her story and her struggles.
Soy Sauce for Beginners is an extremely well-written tale of family, friendship, and the struggles of deciding what you want for your life. Fans of relatable realistic fiction should definitely check this one out. It is definitely a book that has something for all readers.