At the news of her mother’s death, Natalie Tan returns home. The two women hadn’t spoken since Natalie left in anger seven years ago, when her mother refused to support her chosen career as a chef. Natalie is shocked to discover the vibrant neighborhood of San Francisco’s Chinatown that she remembers from her childhood is fading, with businesses failing and families moving out. She’s even more surprised to learn she has inherited her grandmother’s restaurant.
The neighborhood seer reads the restaurant’s fortune in the leaves: Natalie must cook three recipes from her grandmother’s cookbook to aid her struggling neighbors before the restaurant will succeed. Unfortunately, Natalie has no desire to help them try to turn things around–she resents the local shopkeepers for leaving her alone to take care of her agoraphobic mother when she was growing up. But with the support of a surprising new friend and a budding romance, Natalie starts to realize that maybe her neighbors really have been there for her all along.
Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune seemed like it had the recipe of an instant favourite: A story about a Chinese-American woman who returns home to face her demons, explores and celebrates the importance and power of food, and has themes of family, specifically generations of strong and fierce Chinese woman. To my immense disappointment, Natalie Tan has its heart in the right place but was, unfortunately and ultimately, an incredibly frustrating book to read.
The story follows Natalie Tan, a Chinese-American woman who returns to the Chinatown neighbourhood where she grew up as a child following the death of her mother. When she discovers that her long-deceased grandmother’s restaurant was downstairs from her mother’s apartment, formerly the shining light of the neighbourhood, she decides to re-open it to save the neighborhood from gentrification.
A muddled story about family history, relationships, and food – with fabulism?
A central theme of Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune is family. In particular, a significant focus of the story is Natalie’s relationship with her mother, and her mother’s relationship with Natalie’s grandmother. All three women are strong-willed and fierce, but were also ‘broken’ in different ways. For Natalie, she left her ex-fiance at the altar out of cowardice and intergenerational pain of being abandoned by love. For Natalie’s mother, Miranda, she lived with agoraphobia, which shaped her experiences, relationships, and perceptions of the world. For Natalie’s grandmother, Qiao, she was a power to be reckoned with but also had Miranda out of wedlock and became a single mother. The story also explores Natalie’s relationships and budding friendships with her neighbours, who are all going through their own struggle, and how she tries to help them by cooking delicious food that seem to have a life and magic of its own.
Over time however, specific choices with the storytelling started to lose me. First, Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune contains hints of fabulism – a choice that I found very confusing, particularly because the instances of fabulism seemed overtly heavy-handed, shoe-horned, and just… kind of weird? I appreciated that the fabulism in the story was intended to emphasise the strength of emotions or the impact of certain actions, but the fabulism clashed with the contemporary tones of the storytelling. For instance, there are several instances where Natalie cries and her tears turn into crystals. Maybe I am missing something, but I didn’t pick up on the purpose of this instance of fabulism.
Second, and more importantly to me, the story has a strong beginning but falters a lot towards the final third of the book. I do believe that the mystery and subplot of Natalie’s mother and her father is wrapped up well (it was probably my favourite part of the book), but I felt like it loses its way around the middle – which made it difficult for me to engage with Natalie’s character arc. Lastly, and on a more positive note, I actually quite liked the side characters and how gentrification can impact families and relationships. At times, some of their character arcs were incredibly repetitive and shallow (especially the Chius), but I appreciated that their personal stories were thoughtful representations of the challenges that people, particularly older people, experience under the pressure of gentrification – and how, sometimes, gestures of good will and generosity, can help people find their way again.
A story with its heart in the right place, but let down by its poor writing
Writing style is not something that I weigh heavily on when I review books. In my opinion, different authors have different writing styles and I firmly believe that it’s important, as both a reader and reviewer, to meet the author halfway even if the writing doesn’t jell with you.
I did my best while reading Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune – but I struggled, immensely. The first few pages of purple prose and vivid and graphic descriptions of food and action were fine at first, perhaps even appreciated. In a way, the narrative of Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune makes a good first impression and helps transport the reader into the eponymous character’s life, her grief, and surroundings.
However, by the third chapter, and for every chapter thereafter, the purple prose never stops. The prose started to feel saccharine rather than sentimental, obfuscating rather than descriptive, and tedious rather than strongly detailed. Over time, the excess of adjectives, 90% of which the book did not need, started to feel grating. By the halfway mark, I started having flashbacks to when I marked long-winded essays written by students who thought that writing fancy and using uncommon words meant that they were writing smart and well. I think all my qualms with the writing were compounded by the fact that the narrative is in the first person – and the writing took me out of Natalie’s story and her feelings (I kept thinking, ‘who even thinks like this? Isn’t it exhausting?), rather than engage me.
Furthermore, I want to preface this particular critique with the that I love food. (I love food more than I love books!) I was initially excited at the idea of reading a book that would center its story entirely on food. At first, I loved the food descriptions – they were delightful and seeing foods that I also loved and recognised made me incredibly happy and validated. But, after the fifth lengthy paragraph of describing a dish – sometimes in ways that took me out of the writing – it started to get extremely exhausting. Unfortunately, the entirety of the book is littered with tedious food descriptions that overstay their welcome. Towards the end, I started skimming the paragraphs describing food, which made me feel really bad for skimming (I never, ever skim), so I’d togo back read the paragraph, and discover that I really did not miss out on anything. Again, it’s frustrating! I love food! Give me all the food! But this book is an example of how too much of a good thing can really be far too much.
Lastly, the book was in dire need of an editor. There were a lot of repetitions of ideas and feelings that got tiring to read after awhile (if this was intended for dramatic effect, this unfortunately missed its mark for me), but later on the editing got noticeably sloppy. Here’s a particular passage with a glaring issue (and also exemplifies my issues with the book’s writing):
“The next morning I invited Celia over for a breakfast of congee with pickled cucumbers and shredded pork. The dried scallop and duck wings added an extra dimension of flavors to the plainness of the rice porridge. Crowned with delicate rings of spring onion and golden bits of fried garlic, the bowls of steaming porridge were comfort food. Our toppings of choice were crunchy pickled cucumbers and sweet shredded pork floss.”
It’s frustrating, because while reading Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, I really get the sense that Lim is passionate about the subject matter and the themes that her book explores. It’s frustrating, as a reader, to feel this and to feel that the writing not only undermined my reading experience but also what the book was trying to achieve and convey. Unfortunately, I really could not get past the writing – it, frankly, was not great and impeded my ability to engage and enjoy the story.
One of the most baffling romances I have ever read
I do not think that Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune is a romance. I do think the story has romantic elements, yes, but the story focuses a lot about Natalie trying to open her restaurant and the relationships she has with her neighbours. But because there is such a big focus on Natalie’s own character arc, the romance between her and her love interest, a Chinese-American techie named Daniel, is left with no room to grow.
In general, I am not a fan of including romances in a story if the romance/relationship has no significance or importance to the wider story or if the romance is not even given the chance to develop. Unfortunately, Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune does both. Daniel’s existence in the story is intended to be a catalyst for Natalie to overcome her cowardice and to be brave about relationships after leaving her ex-fiance at the altar. That, in itself, is fine.
However, Natalie and Daniel’s relationship is completely unbelievable and frustratingly shallow. I just… do not understand it at all. Let me outline my frustration; minor spoilers to follow: one day when Natalie is cooking dumplings, Daniel smells her cooking and, absolutely entranced, asks her to cook some for him. When Natalie watches Daniel eat, it gives her the tingles in all the fun places. She is so flustered by this that when Daniel comes over to eat her cooking, all that happens is that (1) she cooks for him, (2) she starts blushing so she goes to the kitchen and leaves him alone, (3) when he’s finished, they exchange small talk, and (4) Daniel will leave shortly after eating. (To emphasise: they barely talk!) This happens three times. On the third time, Daniel asks her on a date, which she accepts. On their date, Daniel professes that Natalie is someone ‘important to him’. (Wait, what? You’re on your FIRST DATE.) Chapters pass without seeing much of Daniel. The next major interaction they have is that Daniel tries to console her after something devastating happens. Natalie, frustrated, pushes him away (this is also to reiterate that Natalie’s history of pushing people away). This is apparently called a ‘fight’, enough that when Natalie later apologies to him by bringing him dumplings, he needs ‘space’ from their relationship. But WAIT: What relationship? What is going ON? How did they go from first date to needing ‘space’ from each other? At the very end of the book, after three months has passed, Daniel comes back to Natalie and in two pages, they are okay again. And thank goodness the book ended right there, because I probably would have given up on the book.
My complaints: Natalie and Daniel’s relationship made absolutely no sense to me. How was this supposed to be a meaningful relationship? What was the purpose or meaning of their relationship from a storytelling point of view? Where was the emotional depth? Why do we even care about Daniel, who seems to have fallen in love with Natalie’s cooking, not her as an individual, and wanted ‘space’ from her after one date? Where was the sense? (Am I too demi for this?)
The relationship between Natalie and Daniel frustrated me to no end. No depth, no development, no interesting or meaningful impact on the wider story, except for character gossip fodder. I genuinely do not understand the sequence of events of their relationship and was just… thoroughly baffled and confused.
MY CONCLUSION: NOT RECOMMENDED
I’m disappointed because I so desperately wished that I would love this. Food, culture, and relationships are three things that mean a lot to me and are themes I enjoy reading about – and I felt like Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune was the sort of book I should have loved. However, the story and messages of the story were hindered by the poor storytelling, uninspired romance, and the overly purple prose. With its wealth of issues and shortcomings, I just did not enjoy reading this story. Unfortunately, Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, to me, was my book of confusion and tedious storytelling.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A Chinese-American woman returns to her family’s neighbourhood and decides to reopen her grandmother’s restaurant.
Perfect for: Readers who like stories about food and food descriptions and stories about women across three generations.
Think twice if: You are not a fan of purple prose or overly descriptive storytelling.
Genre: adult contemporary
Trigger/content warning: agoraphobia, death of a loved one, fire