Natalie Tan's Book of Luck & Fortune
There’s something unexpected and unique about Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune. Magical and sublime with a core that’s a real heartbreaker, it nonetheless has a few problems that keep it from being a full-out A-grade homerun.
Natalie Tan once vowed to herself that she’d never return to San Francisco’s Chinatown community. After surviving a childhood hemmed in by her intense relationship with her agoraphobic mother, she’s refused to live with limitations. Natalie became estranged from Ma-ma when she refused to support her daughter’s desire to go to culinary school instead of college, and fled without her approval in order to attend anyway. Even though Natalie flunked out of her classes under pressure, she refuses to return home, traveling the world doing odd jobs instead. But Ma-ma’s death means she must leave her latest stop to settle the woman’s affairs.
Upon arriving at her mother’s apartment, Natalie receives a conciliatory letter. Ma-ma lied to Natalie about a few things – the most important of which is that, though she told Natalie it was in a state of disrepair, her grandmother’s restaurant, sitting on the ground level of their apartment building, is operable. Natalie’s laolao, dead long before Natalie was born, was a star chef like her, and Ma-ma feared that if Natalie followed her dreams into the kitchen she would lose Natalie as well. Ma-ma both refused to continue on the family business after her mother died and lied to Natalie about its worth; thus, the loss of this one-time hub of activity has brought the entire neighborhood to the brink of dissolution.
Natalie is called to reopen the restaurant and bring Chinatown back to life, but she’s still upset with old friends and associates of her mother who never seemed to lend a hand or a dollar when they both struggled to survive in her youth.
When a predatory realtor arrives to continue the neighborhood’s gentrification process, Natalie refuses to sell to her. Relying on her grandmother’s book of recipes, she begins to cultivate her cooking skills while learning more and more about her laolao. Natalie soon learns – from the neighborhood seer – that she must cook three successful dishes from her grandmother’s cookbook to ease her neighbours’ troubles, make the restaurant a success and bring the block back to life. The choice between selling and continuing family tradition has begun to tear Chinatown apart, and only Natalie’s magical cooking can help mend the bonds and keep tradition flowing. And in spite of her fear that love is a fatal virus that corrupts all it touches, she’s begun to crush on her new customer, Daniel. When her recipes begin to go sour, she must discover what’s gone wrong. Will Natalie make Chinatown her permanent home? Or will old memories and grudges get between her and a fresh start?
The insular nature of communities and their cultural heritage haunt the novel, though mostly in a friendly way; the book at heart is about the power of food to transform lives. To claim her destiny as the next in the line of family chefs, Natalie must face the scorn of her neighbors and the weight of her mother’s mistakes. Sometimes, it feels like the narrative punishes her for leaving San Francisco – but it also recognizes that only through mending the tears between her mother and laolao can she move on into the future.
Until Natalie learns how to both forgive her mother and her mother’s world for rejecting her dreams and ignoring her pain, she cannot strike a proper harmony with her cooking skills nor bring laolao’s recipes to life. Part of me accepted the beautiful sense of therapeutic healing that permeated the book. On the other hand, Natalie and her mother – fighting and adoring each other as they do – deserve a more solid send-off than they get. Natalie’s mother’s storyline feels particularly curtailed by the (incredibly well-researched and anchored in cultural mores perfectly) nature of her agoraphobia. She’s the kind of agoraphobic who – convinced she will die like her mother in a sudden, violent accident – refuses to leave the house, and thus imports the neighborhood to her home. There is an extremely ripe moment at the midpoint of the novel that cries out for a full-on reconciliation between the two of them, face to face, but it doesn’t happen.
We’re presented a colorful cast of neighbors who all pop and feel like real people. I liked nearly every character that appeared in some way – well, except for the gentrifying real estate agent. Even Natalie’s kitten has a great and interesting personality!
The introduction of magical realism into the story is startling at first, but works in its own matter-of-fact way that goes unquestioned by its characters. It’s clear that magic is part of this culture, but how long it’s been there and if the magic is unique to the Tan family goes unexplained. Part of me embraced this Like Water For Chocolate-cum-Kiki’s Delivery Service-esque twist to the plot, but another part of me wanted lots of extra worldbuilding.
Daniel and Natalie’s relationship falls under the magical strictures of the book; their love is easy and pre-ordained but hampered by a mid-book argument and his subsequent disappearance while he broods over the threat of her leaving. Yet when they’re together they’re cute and charming, and one can believe in their romance.
The quality of the writing is generally high, with long and beautifully lyrical passages. For this reason, and even though it does have a handful of flaws, I cannot resist recommending the magical universe Ms. Lim offers up for us in about Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune.