At the news of her mother’s death, Natalie Tan returns home. The two women hadn’t spoken since Natalie left in anger seven years ago, when her mother refused to support her chosen career as a chef. Natalie is shocked to discover the vibrant neighborhood of San Francisco’s Chinatown that she remembers from her childhood is fading, with businesses failing and families moving out. She’s even more surprised to learn she has inherited her grandmother’s restaurant.
The neighborhood seer reads the restaurant’s fortune in the leaves: Natalie must cook three recipes from her grandmother’s cookbook to aid her struggling neighbors before the restaurant will succeed. Unfortunately, Natalie has no desire to help them try to turn things around — she resents the local shopkeepers for leaving her alone to take care of her agoraphobic mother when she was growing up. But with the support of a surprising new friend and a budding romance, Natalie starts to realize that maybe her neighbors really have been there for her all along.
Representation: second generation Chinese-American MC, predominantly Chinese & Chinese-American cast, character with agoraphobia and possible depression
Content warnings: (click to show)
death of parent, depictions of mental illness (agoraphobia and likely depression), cultural insensitivity towards mental illness
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It took me a while to acclimate myself to this story, but around halfway or so I started getting pretty into it. Among other things, I hadn’t realized this was magic realism so that threw me for a loop at first; however, the cultural beliefs and traditions (such as offering food to the spirits of deceased family members) are comfortingly familiar and the magic feels like a natural extension thereof.
I particularly love the motifs of food and music since they figure prominently in my memories with my parents, as they do in Natalie’s; this book is a celebration of culture, from recipes for various Asian dishes to descriptions of the erhu. And it’s definitely not just performative: there’s emphasis on filial piety and community obligations and respect for elders and scenes where characters fight for the check — and their general motives and attitudes definitely reflect Chinese values and upbringing.
Though as much as I enjoyed the details, the big picture doesn’t quite work for me. Nothing is wrong with the narrative structure, but the pacing and some of the dialogue felt off: the former too condensed, limiting the emotional impact of each moment, the latter comprehensible but not quite natural. Certain developments also stretched my disbelief pretty far — not to breaking, but there was definite strain.
I wasn’t quite sold on the romance either; it wasn’t really problematic, but honestly I thought it was a little unnecessary. (I know a romance subplot is almost an essential element of commercial fiction in this day and age. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.)
All that said, this was a fun read overall. The recipes are intriguing — I just wish they included measurements; I know experienced cooks often don’t, my mom eyeballs most of hers, but for a beginning cook like me it would be more accessible and less daunting. Still, I love that they were included at all, and the sheer variety is mouthwatering.