By Ekta R. Garg
June 19, 2019
Release date: June 11, 2019
Genre: Women’s fiction
Rated: Borrow it / 3 stars
A young Chinese American woman comes home to fulfill a dream. As she gets to know her mother’s neighbors and works on making her dream come true, she discovers secrets and gets answers she’s sought for much of her life. Author Roselle Lim draws on her own cultural heritage to give readers a story full of delicious recipes but light on substantial fare in the cooking-related novel Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune.
Natalie Tan has wanted nothing more than to be a chef with her own restaurant. She knows she comes from a tradition of cooking: her grandmother ran a restaurant too. Natalie doesn’t know much more than that, however. Before she was born, the restaurant shut down. When she pressed her mother, Miranda, for details, Miranda claimed the restaurant was beyond saving.
Despite this, Natalie wants to pursue her dream. She leaves home to enroll in cooking school. She fails after her first year, but she cooks and travels across the world to continue honing her skills. For seven years mother and daughter don’t speak—until the day Natalie receives word that her mother has died.
She arrives in San Francisco’s Chinatown and her old neighborhood where she grew up as the only child to a single parent. She also grew up hating her father, a man she never met but an inheritance she carries from her mother’s refusal to talk about him. Now Natalie has no parents and only a neighborhood full of people who, in her mind, turned their backs on her and her mother when she was young.
From beyond the grave, though, her mother surprises her. The restaurant is not in a state of disrepair after all, and in a letter Miranda says she approves of Natalie’s dream to open it again. She only wishes she could have said it to Natalie’s face. Natalie is ecstatic, but then she examines the neighborhood. The buildings are old, the tourists no longer come, and few young people live there anymore. Even if she does open her restaurant, who would eat there?
The discovery of her grandmother’s old cookbook and a message from the neighborhood seer encourage her. The seer states that Natalie must make three dishes from the cookbook to help three different people. Her grandmother’s cooking was legendary, healing hearts and solving problems. If Natalie wants the restaurant to survive, she must think of the neighbors and help them first before she can help herself. As she fumbles her way through new relationships and tries to deal with the challenges of starting her own business, Natalie learns that a good meal, like a good conversation, can whet one’s appetite for a new life.
Author Roselle Lim will make readers mouths’ water with the recipes she includes. She offers insight to Asian cooking and its subtleties, proving Chinese fare is so much more than the standard dishes most readers might know. Natalie begins the story with an excellent understanding of these subtleties, so readers might question just why she couldn’t complete her tenure at cooking school.
Natalie comes across as deferential and eager to do the right thing yet also longing to forge her own path, traits many Asian readers will understand. Yet for someone who spends so much time talking about how much she wants to open her restaurant, she takes a long time to do so. In between getting to know the neighbors, cooking, and finding new love, she doesn’t charge forward with the specifics of her goal. Mentions of paperwork, licenses, and other necessities to start a new business crop up from time to time, but readers may wonder: what else, exactly, does Natalie do all day?
Despite the story being told in first person, Lim gives the neighbors their due as secondary characters. While readers never get the full stories on any of them, Lim provides enough information to satiate the most curious. It’s a shame, then, when one or more of these characters behaves in a manner that seems too far outside the lines drawn for them, which happens on more than one occasion.
Lacking a major conflict or even high tension for most of the book, Lim does keep one big surprise for the end. Some readers may not make it that far, but for those who do it will offer a sweet “aha!” moment falling right in line with the rest of the story. Readers looking for a quiet, laid-back novel about family might enjoy this one. Otherwise I recommend readers Borrow Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune from the library.