This book is promising from the outset- you can see some of what it is from its beautiful cover, designed by Vikki Chu. The cover incorporates elements of the book without delivering any spoilers, for which readers should be grateful. Nathalie Tan is highly spoilable, so a good design that reflected the spirit of the book without oversharing is priceless.
We are introduced to Nathalie Tan, gourmand, world-traveler, and distant daughter. At the beginning of the novel, Nathalie receives a premonition of her mother’s death, in the form of birdsong. This lays the groundwork for the magic that is weaved into the tapestry of this story, which is equal parts achingly tragic and surprisingly hopeful. Our heroine returns to her home in Chinatown, only to find it much less prosperous than when she left. Nathalie’s mother posthumously grants her blessing for Nathalie to reopen her grandmother’s restaurant, allowing her to realize her dream. However, the neighborhood is in a downturn, and Nathalie fears it is her fault for abandoning her mother years ago. A prophesy tells her that she must aid her neighbors with her grandmother’s recipes, in order for her restaurant to be successful. Reluctantly, Nathalie agrees to help her neighbors, still resenting them for not helping her when her agoraphobic mother, Miranda, was alive. As Nathalie begins her journey, using her grandmother’s recipe book, she begins to understand that not everything is how she remembered.
As Nathalie interacts with the neighbors she left behind, she realizes that in her absence, they have cared for her mother. She also begins to see that they were a bigger part of her upbringing than she gave them credit for, and opens herself up to a relationship with the people who have known her all her life. She even contemplates a relationship with a man, when she previously thought she was too broken for love. When all of Nathalie’s plans begin to backfire, and her kitchen is destroyed, Nathalie tries to run away. A spirit seeking his peace reminds her about her grandmother’s courage, and inspires her to stay and fix her mistakes. Nathalie is able to repair her fractured relationships, and bring prosperity back to her home, with the help of an unexpected mentor.
This book is deep, complicated and nuanced, like a lot of Nathalie’s dishes. Unlike a lot of other coming-of-age romances, the love story is mostly not romantic, but familial. Through reading her mother’s journals, Nathalie is able to find the love that they always has for one another. She also connects with her grandmother, who died before she was born, but who Nathalie much resembles. Nathalie makes peace with her past, and in learning the truths she was never able to ask her mother for, she frees herself from anger, and resentment. She opens herself up to love, and finds within herself a strength and determination her grandmother would be proud of. Nathalie connects herself to the family she has lost by becoming closer with those who knew them, and in making peace with the neighbors she resented, Nathalie becomes whole.
One of the greatest strengths of this book, and one thing that makes it so unique, is the magical realism that permeates Nathalie’s world. Its presence makes you read each line extra carefully, lest you miss something significant. Nathalie’s grief, and her catharsis, are rendered in haunting, gorgeous detail that wrenches at your heart. This book will enchant and delight its readers, and leave them craving more.