Soy Sauce for Beginners: Book summary and reviews of Soy Sauce for Beginners by Kirstin Chen

Soy Sauce for Beginners

by Kirstin Chen

Soy Sauce for Beginners
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  • Published in USA  Jan 2014
    256 pages
    Genre: Novels

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Book Summary

Gretchen Lin leaves her heart (or at least her floundering marriage) in San Francisco, moves back to her childhood home in Singapore and finds herself face-to-face with the twin headaches she's avoided her entire adult life: her mother's drinking problem and the machinations of her father's artisanal soy sauce business. Surrounded by family, Gretchen struggles with the tension between personal ambition and filial duty, but still finds time to explore a new romance with the son of a client, an attractive man of few words.

When an old American friend comes to town, the two of them are pulled into the controversy surrounding Gretchen's cousin, the only male grandchild and the heir apparent to Lin's Soy Sauce. In the midst of increasing pressure from her father to remain permanently in Singapore - and pressure from her mother to do just the opposite - Gretchen must decide whether she will return to her marriage and her graduate studies at the San Francisco Conservatory, or sacrifice everything and join her family's crusade to spread artisanal soy sauce to the world.

With echoes of Forgotten Country and Girl in Translation, Soy Sauce for Beginners reveals the triumphs and sacrifices that shape one woman's search for a place to call home. Much as Sideways provides a glimpse into the world of winemaking, Soy Sauce for Beginners reveals the unexpected art and tradition behind the brewing of a much-used but unsung condiment. The result is a foodie love story that will give readers a hearty appreciation for family loyalty and fresh starts.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Chen's novel is most enjoyable as a lighthearted glimpse into the rapidly changing culture and economy of Singapore, and into the lives of the young people hoping to find their future there." - Publishers Weekly

"East or West, music studies or the family business, authentic soysauce or a cheaper modern alternative? These are the choices facing droopy Gretchen Lin in a pleasant if generic tale of roots and romance." - Kirkus

"Kirstin Chen's debut is a delicious page-turning treat. Chen captures the zeitgeist of Singapore's new generation in an engrossing, intimately layered tale of love, family, and the discovery of one's true calling." - Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians

"Soy Sauce for Beginners is an engaging story about a young woman's journey through love and friendship, business and family as she seeks her own place in the world. A satisfying and insightful novel." - Jill McCorkle, author of Life After Life

"Kirstin Chen evokes with wonderful brio the conflicts of a family business, and of a family...A sparkling debut." - Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy

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Reader Reviews

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Sarah H. (Arvada, CO)

Excellent Writer!
There are some writers who catch you with their first sentence. You may not have a particular interest in the topic, you may not have anything in common with the character, but their way with words feels like listening to a symphony or watching a sunrise. While Kirsten Chen achieves this, she achieves so much more in tackling the challenges of life we all face in a very interesting (and informative) context. I look forward to more from this author.

Susan J. (Twain Harte, CA)

Not Just About Soy Sauce
I'm not usually a reader of food-related books, but soy sauce intrigued me since we use it frequently when we are in Hawaii. Now I have to look for artisanal varieties! I do love books which focus on the conflicts between Eastern and Western cultures, such as Jhumpa Lahiri's books, and this is clearly one of the themes here. But the issues that Gretchen faces are more universal: family secrets, the pressures inherent in a family business, the hurt of infidelity, the impulse to accept a bad relationship to avoid being alone, the loyalty in women's friendships, a couple growing apart after marrying young. I related to a number of these issues and feel the author handles them in realistic and very readable ways. I plan to pass this book along to my two adult daughters.

Linda J. (Manchester, MO)

Soy Sauce For Beginners
I love books about food, and the title "Soy Sauce For Beginners," intrigued me. Maybe it wasn't as grandiose as "Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously" or "Chocolat," but tempting nonetheless. I wasn't disappointed.

Gretchen Lin, a graduate student in San Francisco, is in the midst of an unraveling marriage and decides to return to her home in Singapore where her family owns an artisanal soy sauce company. I never knew there were artisanal soy sauces, so that, in itself, piqued my interest.

On her return, she is drawn into a power struggle between her father, her Uncle Robert, and his son, Cal, concerning the company, and she finds that her mother has gotten a full-blown drinking problem so bad that she is on dialysis.

While she is trying to process all of this turmoil, her best friend, Frankie, from San Francisco arrives, loving Singapore and wanting to live there. Gretchen gets her a job at Lin's Soy Sauce, and Frankie gets drawn into the drama surrounding the company. This begins to cause a rift in their friendship.

Add to that the fact that Gretchen gets involved with the son of a client, and it doesn't take too long to get completely immersed in this book.
Gretchen finds herself torn between her parents. Cal had previously made a disastrous business decision which caused Gretchen's father and his brother, Robert, to banish him from the company. Now, with some clients willing to pay for a soy sauce of lesser quality, her uncle has invited him back to the company, while Gretchen's father refuses. He wants Gretchen to take the lead.

Gretchen's mother, however, wants her to return to her studies in San Francisco and make her own life. Then there's the issue of her separation from her husband that she needs to solve.

Chen keeps the action at a steady pace with well-placed dialogue and setting, making it hard to put down, even for sleep.

Plus, one finds out a lot about the nuances of soy sauce. She describes how Gretchen's grandfather, Ahkong, developed the delicate sauce and aged it in clay pots, making it the premier sauce of Singapore and beyond. The conflict begins when Uncle Robert on Cal's suggestion, wants to short cut the process making a less palatable product for more profit.

My only problem with the book was that Chen made Gretchen seem a bit selfish or shallow at times. Even though one could empathize with her problems, she could come off as less than likeable. Chen does, however, capture the personalities of all the characters and their interactions.

Added to great story telling, I learned all sorts of things about soy sauce that will make me more judicious in selecting the proper sauce for my next recipe. Who knew?

Elizabeth W. (Van Buren, AR)

Conundrum
What woman hasn't run to "get away from it all" only to find herself in the middle of an even more complex situation? Such is the case with Gretchen Lin in Soy Sauce for Beginners. Ambition, pride, and loyalty all join to create a fascinating book.

Sylvia G. (Scottsdale, AZ)

Worthy debut
When I began this debut novel, I was thinking it was going to be typical, unimaginative chick-lit. What a wonderful surprise it turned out to be. A story about love, it's end, friendship, family business and finding your identity, it is smart,well written, and unpredictable. It seems, at the novels end, that we're being primed for a sequel...and that makes me very happy!

Sarah N. (Corte Madera, CA)

Great Read
I really enjoyed the book. I did want more out of the ending. I do think the characters were developed nicely. I really just wanted a little more meat out of the ending...

...12 more reader reviews

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More Information

Kirstin Chen was born and raised in Singapore. A former Steinbeck Fellow in Creative Writing, she currently lives in San Francisco. Visit her at http://kirstinchen.com and follow her at twitter.com/kirstin_chen

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