Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune
by Roselle Lim
June 11, 2019 · Berkley
Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune is what I’d describe as women’s fiction with magical realism. It also has pages upon pages of yummy food descriptions. While the writing is evocative and every foodie’s dream, the weak romantic subplot, haphazard emotional resolution, and frequent repetition of phrases diminished a majority of the shine of the atmosphere and writing.
Natalie Tan returns to her childhood home in San Diego’s Chinatown following the death of her agoraphobic mother. Natalie’s dream has always been to become a chef; her grandmother ran a very successful restaurant in Chinatown. After her grandmother’s death, Natalie’s mom let the business close down and that grief kept her from supporting Natalie’s dream. Natalie thought she could make it on her own while attending culinary school, but wound up failing out of her program. Unable to return home a failure, especially after her mother had expressed vocal doubts, Natalie spends her life traveling the world, taking up odd jobs, and working in kitchens.
Upon arriving in Chinatown to address her late mother’s affairs, she finds a letter from her mom. In it, she gives her blessing for Natalie to reopen her grandmother’s restaurant. The community is close knit and are hesitant about Natalie’s return. They feel she abandoned her mother and they don’t trust her motivations for reopening her grandmother’s famous cafe.
Doubting herself, Natalie turns to one of Chinatown’s inhabitants, Miss Tai, who runs a lucrative tea shop. Miss Tai also has an “other shop,” as she calls it, that does divinations. Miss Tai tells Natalie that if she uses her cooking to help three of Chinatown’s residents, the cafe will prosper. Armed with her grandmother’s recipe book, Natalie gets to working reacquainting herself with the people of Chinatown, their needs, and what she can do to help the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood.
At first, the magical realism is incredibly subtle, so much so that I didn’t even know it was happening until an opening scenario repeated itself. Natalie refers to her tears as “teardrop crystals.” The second time this is mentioned, she physically scoops them up and puts them in a bowl. She was literally crying crystals; the first mention, though, I thought was a turn of phrase.
A majority of the magic is in the food. Dishes have certain properties wherein they can open minds for discussion, increase happiness, or bestow good luck. When people eat certain foods, their skin may steam or glow, and I loved this exaggerated personification of how food and eating made people feel.
However, there were other parts of the magical realism that didn’t quite fit for me. The teardrop crystals, for one, and then the addition of a spirit later on in the story. I didn’t understand the boundaries or limitations of the magic, or where it came from. At one point, Natalie is literally shedding crystals from her eyes in the back of a cab and no one says anything. I was never able to get a handle on whether the whole world was magical, how deep the magical realism permeated every day life for other people, and how cognizant the other characters were of Natalie’s cooking magic.
I will say that the writing is really beautiful and I loved the use food metaphors to describe things.
A gathering fog brewed at the base of the gate the way steam rises from a perfect bowl of noodle soup.
I was home.
I should have gone straight to the apartment, but I feared the finality of what awaited me there. Instead, I kept my head down, veering by my old front door, speed walking past the familiar shops of our neighborhood, hoping the fog would thicken like salted duck congee to conceal my arrival.
Natalie uses food descriptions to illustrate both moments of hesitation (as above) and the effects her dishes have on those who eat it. In one scene, Natalie cooks a crab dish for a local bookstore owner to give him courage:
Older Shen wiped his mouth, pulling his shoulders back, straightening his spin as if he were being pulled upward by an invisible string. The faded threads of his tweed jacket shifted, vibrating until the color saturated, blooming into a bold palette. The sweeping change traveled onto his skin, leaching away the pallor, tempering the grays in his hair, adding a spark in his faraway eyes. Chi gathered around him. Tiny, almost invisible motes of energy clung to his presence like garlands of Christmas lights.
Food permeates everything Natalie is and does, but food is also what caused a rift between her grandmother and mother. Food also damaged her own relationship with her mom. But where the scenes with food get all the bells and whistles, other moments become lackluster because of noticeably repetitive phrases. The cafe once run by Natalie’s grandmother was once “the jewel of Chinatown,” cooking was “in her blood,” and the concepts of “filial piety” and obligations are repeated at length.
The latter contributed to my disappointment in how Natalie addressed her unresolved relationship with her mother. She doesn’t allow herself to fully grieve that they never were able to repair their connection. Her mother’s agoraphobia kept her in her house 24/7 and yet I never felt any resentment, anger, or really any complicated feelings in regards to her childhood from Natalie. Instead, she expresses more emotion at the fact she never had a father in her life than a mother who let her down.
Natalie realizes her mother was consumed by grief and depression following the disappearance of her husband and her grandmother’s sudden death, and how her mother’s mental illness were exacerbated by the lack of therapy.
Mental illness was a foreign concept in my culture. To my people, superstitions were more real than depression or anxiety. Instead of therapists, we saw doctors, herbalists, feng shui consultants, and acupuncturists. We would rather believe in spirits, luck, ghosts, and demons than the discipline of psychology. Perhaps it wasn’t that my grandmother had refused to see my mother’s condition, but rather she could not see it.
I definitely understand this concept, where certain cultures or generations of family members view mental illness with a different lens. However, that revelation for Natalie doesn’t have any payoff. What about therapy for herself? How about addressing her own feelings of abandonment? We never get that and I had wanted that moment to mean more to Natalie. I wanted to know how this revelation affected Natalie’s relationship and memory of her mom, how it affected her grief, and this image she’s cultivated of a grandmother she never met. The payoff I was wanting never came. She realizes so many things about her relationships in hindsight, but doesn’t do anything with those realizations.
As I mentioned earlier, there is a romantic subplot, but it’s a small percentage of Natalie’s journey. Dedicated romance fans will feel cheated by its existence because it is rather cute, though it lacks significant time to breathe and grow. There are only four or so scenes between Natalie and her beau, Daniel, and during their first official date, Natalie is already telling Daniel that her mother would have liked him. Their relationship progressed incredibly quickly for such a short amount of time, and all while Natalie is trying to kickstart her own restaurant and re-acclimate herself to the community. It wasn’t entirely necessary to include a romantic interest for Natalie.
I’m curious what author Roselle Lim has next, but this debut novel faltered in its execution. Food-centric stories and magical realism are one of my very favorite combinations, and I was really excited to read this one. But with so many uninspiring elements–a middling romance, confusing moments of fantasy, and a heroine who never seems fully own her emotions or allow them to inform future decisions–it strayed from what made the book wonderful to begin with, which was the transformative properties of good food.
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