Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim
A bitter, ongoing quarrel with her mother about her career plans to be a chef led Natalie Tan to leave her San Francisco home in anger. Seven years of stubborn silence and globe-wandering later, Natalie is called home by a neighbor at her mother’s passing. She still deeply desires to be a chef and to have her own authentic Chinese restaurant, like her grandmother Qiao had done many years earlier, and now she’ll have the chance: Natalie has inherited her laolao’s (maternal grandmother’s) long-abandoned restaurant below their apartment. It’s still operable, though dusty and dirty, but their Chinatown neighborhood is fraying, with family-owned businesses dying and a steep rise in real estate prices causing Chinese families to move away.
A psychically-gifted neighbor returns Qiao’s old, handmade recipe book to Natalie, along with a prediction: if Natalie cooks three recipes from the book to help three of her neighbors, as her laolao did many years ago, and is able to save these neighbors, her restaurant will be the jewel of Chinatown and the neighborhood will be revitalized. Natalie is initially dubious and reluctant ― she feels like her neighbors had let her down when she was struggling to deal with her mother’s agoraphobia years ago ― but she soon enters into the spirit of the endeavor, and magical things begin to happen when her neighbors eat her food.
As I watched, fractures ran along the surface of their skin, reminding me of shattered porcelain. The cracks deepened as they ate. Once they were finished, tiny streams of glittering gold filled the cracks: mending, repairing what was broken, and transforming it into something far more beautiful. It was similar to a piece of kintsukuroi I’d picked up in Tokyo, repaired pottery that had been mended with gold.
As Natalie begins cooking in Qiao’s restaurant, the scent of fried dumplings even leads a handsome young man to her restaurant and her life. But neither love nor her quest to help the neighborhood is as easy as Natalie had expected.
Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune (2019) is a charming, sweet tale with a dash of magical realism. I expected something like The Joy Luck Club or a Chinese-American version of Like Water for Chocolate. What I got was more like a literary version of a Hallmark TV romance movie. It’s so lightweight as to approach being fluffy, though the immersion in Chinese culture and food serves to give it some heft and make the story more memorable. Several Chinese recipes are included in the novel, and they and the luscious descriptions of Natalie’s cooking made my mouth water. The romance subplot wasn’t particularly well-developed or romantically satisfying; I got far more enjoyment out of reading about the “plump prawns” and “tender steamed rice noodles and crunchy golden fritters.”
Debut author Roselle Lim incorporates a few serious issues into her tale, including mental illness and the loss of ethnic urban neighborhoods. Her writing is sometimes clunky; phrases like “gathering fog brewed at the base of the gate the way steam rises from a perfect bowl of noodle soup” and “hoping the fog would thicken like salted duck congee to conceal my arrival” struck me as unintentionally humorous.
Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune is a warmhearted tale with an authentic Chinese voice, if not as deep and literary as one might hope.