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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Review: Soy Sauce for Beginners

I picked up Soy Sauce for Beginners as part of the Kindle First program. For one, it's a book about food. Secondly, the author's from Singapore, where I grew up. Any book from a Singaporean about food has got to be good, right?

One of the smartest people I know once said to me, "There are only two types of people who like Singapore: women, and foreigners." It's a deep insightful statement if you know Singapore well, but unfortunately, it's clear that Kirstin Chen doesn't share that insight. The novel is about Gretchen, who at 30, discovers that her husband has been cheating on her and moves back to Singapore to take a break from her disastrous marriage.

She then plunges into her family business of making soy sauce, not as a relief from the mess of her life in San Francisco, but as a burden. Her white friend from her Stanford days joins her, and she starts dealing with her mother's alcoholism, dating as a soon-to-be-divorcee, and possible return to San Francisco. This could all have been interesting, but Gretchen engages in all the stereotypical behavior of an Asian woman you could think of, and no, Chen isn't making an ironic statement about it: she's just oblivious.

For instance, Gretchen only dates white guys. This is pretty common, but she's also oblivious enough to be proud that she was the first Asian woman her ex-husband dated. She's then devastated that he cheats on her with another Asian woman. Her white friend in Singapore gets a lot of attention (as white people would), and Gretchen is appropriately jealous of her, but also without insight.

The references to food, the use of Singlish, and notes on the culture are somewhat appropriate. They're also divorced in general from how non-rich people live in Singapore. There's a deep assumption that people get around in cars, which of course, isn't true in Singapore or any major Asian city. There's no reference to the mass transit systems there, nor is there any reference to a single sympathetic Asian man other than the protagonist's father. This gives you an idea of how skewed Chen's world view is.

I should note that most Asian American fiction is essentially a body of work by Asian American women: very few Asian men are represented, so to some extent this is accepted and standard for a novel that's considered "literature" or "literary fiction." But life is short and you only have so much time for so many novels, so why read yet another standard Asian American novel?

Ultimately, the ending is predictable, as though written for a Singaporean audience, in complete contradiction, of course, to the author's real actual life. I wanted very much to like this book, but I'm afraid I cannot recommend it as a good use of your time.


Allen Knutson said...

As a foreigner, I liked Singapore, although I was only there for a couple of weeks a couple of years ago. In no small part because it reminded me of New York City (in size, population, mass transit, cosmopolitan-ness, income distribution, ...). Would you mind spelling out that deep insightful statement further? You've really got me curious.

Piaw Na said...

Neither foreigners nor women have to do military service, which is an onerous requirement for men lasting 2.5 years in Singapore. It further separates the rich foreigners from the locals.