There are certain times where I feel a certain condescension when I read foreigners trying to read meanings and poetry into what I feel is my domain as a person of Chinese ancestry. This isn't one of those times. In fact I feel humbled and delighted by the lessons that Nicole Mones was able to impart upon me.
It is rare that I get up from a book about China so totally enthralled and educated from a tome written by a yang ren, a foreigner. This book is the second book that has made me feel this way in the last few years. The first was Oracle Bones: A Journey Between China's Past and Present by Peter Hessler, it was a non-fictional observation about China and the impact that globalization has had on Chinese society. This book is a work of fiction, by virtue of that fact, it was able to draw me further into all that it had to convey: on being Chinese, on the complicated intertwining of Chinese food culture and general culture, on the meaning of guanxi, on the wonders of Chinese cuisine.
I had always felt that due to the unsavory nature of Chinese-American food as it is, that the true nature of Chinese cuisine has never been fully unleashed on the American palate. I have stewed on the fact that the French and Italian cuisines rank so much higher on the sophistication scale of the American gastronome versus the lowly Chinese cuisine. I felt it but I was unable to express it adequately. Nicole Mones has done this and more with this story. Her descriptions of the dishes, her attention to the details of the preparation, her insistence on relaying the philosophical nature of food, on presentation, on the small details and gestures so very important in China, on the little puns and literary allusions of Chinese food had opened my eyes and sent me headlong into a frenzy to rediscover my heritage through my ample stomach. Thankfully, she was good enough to have included an afterward full of resources for research so that I can research these ideas on my own.
To top it all off, she was able to wrap all of the scholarly work in a very touching and suspenseful story. After all, guanxi is all about people. The characters in this book are not necessarily completely developed, except maybe for Sam and Maggie but the other characters are developed enough to elicit emotional responses, I cared about what happened to these characters. The relationships drawn in the story are very Chinese and yet also very western, the ending had a nice and tangy sweetness to it which made me smile.
I really liked this book, it combined a lot of my own personal loves: my ancestry, food, methods of writing, and China itself to pull me in and stay there until the end. It was informative with out being didactic, sentimental without being maudlin, philosophical without being humorless, and dramatic without dropping into melodrama.
I guess you can say that I endorse this book highly.