Soy Sauce for Beginners
- Kirstin Chen
- New Harvest
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Chloe Krug Benjamin
- January 22, 2014
With her marriage failing, a woman moves back to Singapore and into the struggles of her family and their artisanal soy sauce business.
Gretchen Lin is 30 years old and at a loss: her marriage is crumbling, her career goals are hazy and her life in San Francisco is suddenly precarious. Seeking an escape, she moves home to Singapore, where she takes a temporary position with her family’s artisanal soy sauce business. But life in Singapore, as it happens, is no refuge: Gretchen must confront her mother’s illness and the complicated family politics that are both the great strength and the crippling weakness of Lin’s Soy Sauce — all things she moved to San Francisco to avoid.
Soy Sauce for Beginners is Kirstin Chen’s first novel, and it works like a good recipe, with smooth language and an easily digestible plot. Chen salts the story with humor and astute moments of relational conflict; romance comes in the form of James Santoso, the faux-hawked son of a new client. When Gretchen’s college roommate joins the company and Lin’s suffers the loss of its heir apparent — Gretchen’s ambitious cousin — after a food-safety scandal, the plot, well, thickens.
The novel’s true protagonist, however, might be Lin’s Soy Sauce. Some of the story’s most appealing passages detail the business of making artisanal soy sauce, which is naturally fermented over a period of months in waist-high clay vessels. In these moments, Chen’s language is vivid and sensuous and mouthwatering: the smell of fermenting soybeans is “tangy and pungent, like rising bread or wet earth,” while a finished bottle is “as complex as a fine wine.” During a tasting, Gretchen’s uncle points out “the lively acidity of the light soy sauce in comparison to the rich, mellow sweetness of the dark one,” then pours a dash of the latter into a can of Sprite — an unexpected combination whose tangy brown-butter taste always impresses Lin’s clients.
Like Gretchen, Kirstin Chen is a native of Singapore who moved to the U.S. after receiving a stateside education. Her knowledge of Singapore’s complexities and contradictions gives the novel a radiant, multifaceted backdrop. Singapore, we learn, has four official languages — English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil — but its “unofficial national tongue” is Singlish, a musical and idiosyncratic combination of the four. The country is home to a young, prosperous upper class, though “eighty percent of the population [lives] in government-built high rises.” Fascination with Western culture jostles for space in a nation that prizes long-held customs and social hierarchy.
Gretchen’s family personifies this conflict: her mother is a Cornell-educated scholar who named her daughter “after her favorite Schubert lied even though she knew everyone would stumble over the name,” while her father wants nothing more than for Gretchen to carry on the family business.
Chen deftly captures Singapore’s burgeoning community of ambitious, U.S.-educated young adults. In one scene, a friend of Gretchen’s throws a Roaring Twenties party at her cubist house, which was designed by a Beverly Hills architect. Guests may be dressed in flapper dresses and tailcoats, but they still take off their shoes at the door in accordance with Singaporean custom. Later, the group goes to a thumping, violet-lit nightclub called Zouk. “On the dance floor,” writes Chen, “the crowd sang and moved in unison, like the chorus line of a Broadway musical — a peculiar Zouk trademark that seemed to embody the mindset of an entire nation: even inebriated, at our most free, we all chose to mimic each other.”
Lines like this evince a keen eye for social and interpersonal observation, so it’s somewhat disappointing when the plot resorts to familiar tropes. In one romantic-comedy moment, Gretchen trips in her pumps and falls onto James: “I dropped my hands to my sides, startled by the comfort of his touch. ‘You okay?’ he asked, his gaze locking onto mine.” American culture is partially embodied by Melody, “America’s favorite daytime talk show host,” who “urged viewers to “Stop saying ‘no,’ and start saying ‘Hell, yeah!’” Chen’s writing is more straightforward than surprising, and occasionally, Gretchen’s moments of introspection feel unnecessarily explanatory.
But Chen’s pacing is excellent, and in most moments, Soy Sauce for Beginners is a dialogue-based page-turner — no small feat in the realm of character-based fiction. As Lin’s debates whether to produce a cheaper, faster soy sauce or to stick with its artisanal roots, and Gretchen makes her final decision, Chen brings the novel’s many plot lines to a skillful, if foreseeable, close. Readers craving an engaging and readable foodie tale will declare themselves satisfied.