Soy Sauce for Beginners, Kirstin Chen
The outlines of this story felt familiar: an adult child returns home after a personal trauma, to care for an aging parent while coping with family issues. Those issues sometimes relate to property, or as in this case, a family business. What I particularly enjoyed about this story was its unfamiliar aspects. It is set mainly in Singapore, the hometown of the narrator Gretchen Lin. Just turned thirty, Gretchen has left her home and a graduate program in San Francisco, after her husband left her for his young graduate assistant. Living again with her parents, at her father's insistence she has returned to work - at least temporarily - in the family business, Lin's Soy Sauce. She is also helping her father care for her mother, weakened by kidney disease, brought on in part by her alcoholism.
Like Gretchen, her author Kirstin Chen is a native of Singapore (Ms. Chen now lives in San Francisco). Though I have read various newspaper and magazine articles about the city, this is the first novel that I have read set there. I felt like I was being given an insider's tour. At least in this telling, food plays a big part in the city's life, with a diverse cuisine reflecting its different ethnic communities. Reading about the food reminded me of Jen Lin-Lu's books on Chinese cooking (though I can't remember if she wrote about Singapore).
Of course a major ingredient in that cooking is soy sauce, and the family company is a major part of Gretchen's story. Lin's was founded by her grandfather Lin Ming Tek, who despised mass-produced "murky, stagnant pond-water brew" and wanted to create "naturally fermented soy sauce, made from the highest-quality ingredients." Using traditional methods that were already becoming obsolete, he built a successful company with sauces that have won prestigious awards. These sauces are sold across Asia, and the company is poised to break into the European and American markets. But now, years after its founder's death, his two sons disagree over its future. Gretchen's father wants to keep the old techniques, even the old equipment. Her uncle Robert and his son Cal, the heir apparent, are intent on modernizing production. They have brought in fiberglass vats, to replace the traditional clay jars and wooden barrels. To Gretchen and her father, the sauce they produce is unworthy of the Lin name, but Robert and Cal press on. Gretchen can't help worrying about her father, and the company, which is also their family. But then she is only there for a short time, she will be returning to San Francisco soon. She is not a part of Lin's.
I had a pretty good idea where the story was going to go, but I enjoyed watching it unfold. Gretchen is an interesting character, and quite a mess for most of the book - understandably, given everything that is going on. Family and business are a volatile mix, particularly with her mother's health and the alcoholism that they have all tacitly ignored for so many years. I liked Gretchen despite her rough edges. But her coping mechanisms often just make things worse for her, and it was hard watching her make bad decisions.
I always enjoy stories about family businesses, but I was surprised at how interesting I found the discussion of soy sauce. This book was originally chosen for one of my monthly book groups, but I couldn't find a copy at the time. Our hostess that month arranged a soy sauce tasting party, collecting twelve or so different brands. None of them measured up to Gretchen's descriptions of Lin's, "as complex as a fine wine," with "the citrus top notes and round caramel base that distinguished our trademark brew." Some of them tasted as awful as Robert and Cal's fiberglass version. I know that next time I'm shopping in the local Asian supermarket, I'll be checking out the soy sauces, looking for something artisanal. I'll also be looking for whatever Kirstin Chen writes next. It's hard to believe that this is her first novel.