Soy Sauce for Beginners
Author: Kirstin Chen
Cover Design: Lynn Buckley
Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Chick Lit
Setting: San Francisco, USA | Singapore
Published by New Harvest
Thirty-year-old Gretchen Lin leaves San Francisco to return to Singapore. She aims to break away from the hurt and shame caused by her American husband’s infidelity, but going back to her homeland meant she also has to face the ‘subtle’ demands of her family to involve herself in the family’s artisanal soy sauce business, as well as her mother’s failing health and alcoholism. Instead of opening up to her friends back in Singapore, she tries to avoid them and also attempts to isolate herself from her family. Her complacency becomes a rather overused attitude that simply leads her to nowhere and into more trouble.
What’s great about Gretchen’s character is that her issues are universal- her struggle to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity and the shame that goes along with it, the demands and pressures of family businesses, having the courage to settle things between her own need to be loved and to be understood while providing her parents much-needed support. She seems halfhearted and indecisive about how she can resolve things so she can become an individual in her own right. I found Gretchen to be authentic and honest, dealing with common issues that many can relate to. Her speech and thoughts were identifiable and realistic. She is struggling to find her purpose and find her place in the world. One would sense that Gretchen seems to know more about the soy sauce business than she would actually admit. Her constant denial of her loyalty to their family’s business becomes rather pointless. She knows she has been honed to be part of it since she was little. Her belief in quality coincides with her father and grandfather’s dedication to producing great quality soy sauce, prepared using traditional methods. In the end, she redeems herself by making difficult choices and dealing with her problems head on.
Reading this book brought back fond memories of living in Singapore. It mentioned a lot of places I’ve been to and food that I enjoyed (and dreamed of). I love how she easily incorporates some Singlish (“Singapore’s unofficial tongue”, according to the author) in the book. You can learn more about Singlish here. I remember speaking Singlish when I was still living there. Words like lah, aiyah and hor were something I picked up from my Singaporean friends and classmates. During my last visit in 2011, I was surprised that I have retained the language and still had the intonation and vocabulary to converse with many people this way. It was truly wonderful to remember these moments while reading Gretchen’s story.
I was surprised with the alacrity at which I read this book. I found myself wanting to know what will happen next. I was completely drawn to the story and eagerly awaited Gretchen’s next move. Kirstin Chen’s writing is lucid. Its brevity doesn’t dampen the story. It does the opposite actually… It lends a sense of lightheartedness and frankness that I found refreshing. I loved the premise of finding your true calling in a world that serves to confuse and challenge at times. Realizing that we need to face problems instead of running away is a point that was realized through Gretchen’s experiences. I found comfort in the reassuring message of love and support from family. Sometimes the people we love are the ones we never run to when we despair. It’s great to know then that no matter how many times we mess up, loved ones will always be there for us. Family is not merely a word but rather a place we can call home and find unconditional love.
Soy Sauce for Beginners is a window into the rich culture of Singapore, Chinese cuisine and the art of artisan soy making. Those who find interest in these things will not be disappointed. If you’re looking for a quick and enjoyable read about a new culture and exotic food, look no further.
Instead of having the usual FIVE THINGS section, here’s a small introduction to the author:
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