Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Soy Sauce for Beginners - Kirstin Chen

Gretchen Lin, thirtysomething and drifting. She leaves San Francisco with a heavy, unsure heart. Her marriage has failed and heading back to Singapore is not what she wants either. At home is a mother with an alcohol problem and her father's soy sauce business.

The young woman has tried to avoid the messy situation but when she arrives, there are more things to consider, work out and resolve. Namely, where the Lin's handcrafted soy sauce company is heading, how to work alongside a money orientated uncle and cousin and how can she repair her marriage?

When her friend from America arrives to start a new job, tensions arise between them as well as her family and feeling even more unsure with her life, the brief affair she starts with the son of a client brings out a rebellious streak. Gretchen wonders if to return back to San Francisco to complete her studies or remain in Singapore to carry on the business of her grandfather.

With emotions in turmoil and childhood memories made clearer now she's an adult, can the Gretchen find a path that suits her and will she, once she's taken that route, find peace?

Chen's debut novel is a bag full of mixed emotions. She has a lot to consider - repair a broken marriage, finish school, become the new manager of a longstanding company - a lot; but until she is clear about what she wants to achieve is she any good to anyone? Her journey to reveal the answers is arduous but is that of her own making?

Whilst the characters met are certainly fascinating as is the process of making quality soy sauce, the plot itself seems a little lack lustre. It never seemed to really take off - a gentle flowing story. But perhaps that's intentional - Gretchen is herself drifting, trying to make one place her home, find contentment. The author's writing is unobtrusive and immediately draws you in. Descriptions are minimal but Gretchen's voice is strong and carries the story along nicely.

Overall it's an enjoyable story that embraces facing the harsh realities of life such as a frail mother and ebbing friendships. The main character is likable (although I didn't gel with her as such) and I'm sure many would be able to relate to someone in this tale. A recommended read.

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