literary food blog, for readers with good taste.

Book Review: Soy Sauce for Beginners by Kirstin Chen


I have to admit, I've been bad. With the holidays, travel and getting used to a new work routine, I've been reading less than usual. A lot less. So when I realized I was scheduled for a pairings post in a couple weeks, I panicked a little bit. That's when I discovered Soy Sauce for Beginners available in the Kindle Owners' Lending Library. The cover caught my eye and I was intrigued by the premise and I love soy sauce so I hit download and there it was a minute later. Usually, I put a little more thought into my book choices. Anyway.

Gretchen is a depressed 30-year-old woman who has moved home to Singapore, away from San Francisco and her cheating husband, from whom she is separated. She hails from a family of successful artisan soy sauce makers, whose company is on the cusp of expanding into North America. As she struggles with the shame and hurt stemming from her husband's disloyalty, Gretchen simultaneously attempts to fight off her father's attempts to fold her into the family business and support her ailing mother as she battles kidney failure and alcoholism.

It seems every obstacle that can land in Gretchen's path does and, honestly, she does a terrible job handling it. She avoids her parents, starts sleeping with the first man who pays attention to her, refuses to commit herself to any sort of career and pushes away her friends. Her ability to isolate herself thus is all the more marked in relation to the culture of her Chinese Singaporean family, who solve problems in groups and over food even in the most dire circumstances. In the end, Gretchen is faced with a great number of choices regarding her parents, career and husband. Though she makes what most readers would agree are the right choices, they're also quite predictable and failed to move me.

If it sounds like I hated this book, let me set the record straight. Chen's writing is light and enjoyable. I read this book in two sittings, briskly moving from chapter to chapter, and I remained interested in the story throughout. Description — of the settings and the food — is Soy Sauce for Beginners' greatest strength. Chen conjures a soy sauce so layered, so delicate that I found myself wondering if I should recreate the Sprite and soy sauce cocktail Gretchen's dad serves his clients. Strange, but intriguing.

Were you to ask me whether this book were good, I'd tell you it wasn't bad. Not the highest praise, certainly, but if you're interested in Asian cuisines, Singapore's culture in particular and  breezy read, I would recommend Soy Sauce for Beginners. Be aware that it won't change your life, and you won't be disappointed.

Heck, you might even want to join me for that cocktail.

The TBR List: January 17

At The Table With...Jamie Bennett of Perpetual Page-Turner