A Taste for Love
Like most Jane Austen adaptations (this one is a riff on Pride and Prejudice), A Taste For Love struggles to work some of the plot devices of the original into the modern world. While some aspects of this book are sweet, it’s ultimately underbaked.
Liza Yang’s parents run Yin and Yang, a Taiwanese bakery/restaurant in Houston. While it’s Liza’s dream to bake like her mother, her parents want college for Liza, not culinary school. And in the meantime, of course, her mother relentlessly tries to set her up with… well, I was going to say ‘nice Chinese boys’, but honestly, niceness doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for Mom. She’s more into height, grades, and future employability.
Meanwhile, James Wong and his best friend Ben have come to town. Ben is a sweetie, and Liza’s friend Grace is immediately smitten, but James is standoffish, rude, and arrogant (Hi, Darcy and Bingley). But when Liza’s mom turns her annual baking competition into another matchmaking plot, both boys end up as participants. James, surprisingly, has real talent – except someone is trying to sabotage either the competition, or him, or both.
The opening of this book, before the Austen stuff kicks in, is quite enjoyable. Liza’s likable, once you get past her ‘I won’t date Asian boys’ thing (race-based dating isn’t a good look on anybody, even if it’s one’s own race). It’s more about her mom’s Asian picks, not Asians per se. I am happy to see a teen romance about kids with curfews, with nary a drunken party in sight. Liza works hard at the bakery – yes, her mother corners her into providing a lot of free labor – but it’s something most kids of families with a family business will recognize. Liza is genuinely good at and passionate about baking, experimenting, working, and recipe-writing in a way that shows, not just tells.
Liza’s friends are better than the common YA afterthoughts, with Grace being bisexual and genuinely interested in Ben, and Sarah being a well-intentioned but clueless white girl who says things like “He’s hot for an Asian guy.” I enjoyed the description of Liza’s visit with her sister Janine in New York City. I always enjoy good siblings, especially sisters, and the two have a happy, positive relationship even though their mother relentlessly favors Janine.
Then, unfortunately, the Austen stuff kicks in. James was growing on me despite having been rude to a waitress, but then he has to do the dumb things Darcy does because the plot calls for it. There has to be a Wickham, and this leads to a convoluted backstory that really bogs things down. At least everybody gets together and shamefacedly talks things through, which is mature, but still feels forced.
Most problematic to me, though, wasn’t an Austen adaptation issue. It was how Liza’s mom used a $15,000 scholarship contest to matchmake for Liza. Liza was indignant for herself, but nobody in the book seems to think of the hundreds of applicants shut out of a life-changing opportunity because Liza’s mom didn’t see them as a match for her daughter. No female bakers, no queer boys, no boys with low grades? This isn’t only insanely unfair and immoral, but also potentially illegal. It was also infuriating that of the boys she picked, barely half of them were vaguely competent at baking. Her mom, we are told, takes this competition seriously for business PR and for the Chinese community. Even if she was going to matchmake, it’s completely out of character for her to make herself and her project a laughingstock. It’s so jarring that we are supposed to find the whole thing whimsically hilarious, not only because it’s genuinely isn’t funny, but because it’s out of tone with the rest of the book.
There is also a frustrating and silly competition sabotage plot, with the characters taking an inordinate time to realize something is up, and with the disappearance of an item I pegged for disaster the first time it was heavy-handedly introduced as precious and irreplaceable. The saboteur is obvious, and their motivation is pointless. By the final third, I was fighting not to skim.
This book would have been a B if the competition had been better handled, but between that and the forced Austen plot points, the grade fell. I loved the descriptions of the food and the nice relationships, however, and I suspect Jennifer Yen may have better, more original books to come..