General fiction novel set in Singapore about family, career, love and identity
Content warning: alcoholism, family violence, fatphobia
It was time for my next running book and the title of this one caught my eye. I have spent a lot of time living in South-East Asia and I absolutely adore cooking with and consuming all soy sauces, so I was keen to see what this book was like. It was also mercifully short.
“Soy Sauce for Beginners: a novel” by Kirsten Chen and narrated by Nancy Wu is a general fiction novel set primarily in Singapore. Gretchen has moved back to Singapore leaving behind her marriage and career in San Francisco, USA. The family business is making premium soy sauce and, after moving back in with her parents, Gretchen also finds herself with a ready-made job and all the perks. However, while Gretchen struggles to face the reality of her mother’s alcoholism and her failing marriage, she is also forced to confront the truth of what is happening within the family business.
This was an easy book to listen to. Chen’s straightforward writing style and Wu’s flexible narration worked well together. I think the highlights for me were definitely the scenes set in the soy sauce factory, and learning more about how different flavours and styles are achieved through different fermenting techniques. Singapore is such a dynamic country, and I always enjoy reading books set there, so it was an interesting to read a perspective from a character who is resentful to be home.
However, there were a few things that didn’t quite land for me in this book. Although the premise was fairly uncomplicated, I did find it hard staying invested in the story towards the end. While I appreciate this book was published nearly 10 years ago, I did find a lot of the commentary about weight, especially Gretchen’s friend Frankie’s former weight, quite grating. Chen deliberately doesn’t always portray Gretchen in an especially positive light, and I understand this book is about personal growth, but it did feel at times to be to such an extent that it was hard to empathise with Gretchen.
A heartfelt book that maybe just needed a dash more soy sauce.