Progress Report on Nicole Mones’ The Last Chinese Chef (by Jill)

the-last-chinese-chef cover

I feel like I have a hundred new years resolutions this year. Okay, maybe five. But the one that pertains to the blog is that I want to not disappear for weeks on end like I did towards the end of 2014. And the end of 2013. Maybe it’s a seasonal problem. Whatever. The upshot is that I want to try to post more often, and if that means I need to stop reading a book I’m enjoying for a few minutes to collect my thoughts and share, then so be it. That being said, I don’t want to post about a book so many times that by the time I get to the end I don’t have anything to say (my month of posts about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay springs to mind). So I’m going to try to do two posts per book: a progress report and a final thoughts. If the book goes super fast, I’ll just do one post. If the book takes a really long time, and I have some bricks in the on-deck circle right now (I want to read more Diana Gabaldon this year, for example), I’ll just have to write short updates. Or figure out other stuff to talk about.

But about The Last Chinese Chef. This is the last of my books borrowed from my boss’s friend Jerry who I’ve never met, and I’m slightly less than halfway through it. I’m enjoying it more than Death with Interruptions but not quite as much as Stoner. This book takes place in modern-day China, sometime in the year or two leading up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. There are two protagonists, and the story is told in third person limited omniscient with these two characters as the primary viewpoints. Periodically the author will leave our two main characters to see what another person thinks of one of them, but mostly it’s Maggie McElroy and Sam Liang. Maggie is a middle-aged food writer whose husband was killed in a freak car accident a year prior, and Sam is an American-born half-Chinese, half-Jewish chef living in Beijing. The bulk of the action thus far takes place in Beijing. Maggie’s dead husband was a lawyer whose firm had an office in Beijing, and Maggie finds herself there because it turns out that Matt was maybe doing more than just working (surprise!) on all his business trips—someone has filed a paternity claim against his estate, and because of some Chinese laws, she needs to go there and figure out what to do. Her magazine gives her the chance to turn it into a working trip by interviewing Sam Liang while she is there. Chinese cuisine isn’t really her area of expertise, but she decides to do it, primarily because work has been the only thing keeping her going since her husband died. Sam is worth writing a story on because he’s an American who moved to China to be trained by his father’s dear friends, all bigwigs in the classical Chinese food scene. His plan is to open a restaurant, but the investors fall through right as we meet Sam. But that’s okay, because they are having a cooking Olympics to go with the actual Olympics in 2008. I have no idea if this cooking Olympics actually happened, but it sounds a lot like Iron Chef and that concerns me. So Maggie’s article turns into the tale of Sam trying to get a spot on the Chinese cooking team. I’m pretty sure these two are going to end up having some sort of liaison before I get much further in the book: Maggie’s lonely, Sam is single with a bunch of older “uncles” telling him he needs a woman…. I just hope Mones does a good job with their unfolding love story. I can’t help but think that she will—Jerry and Cathy don’t read garbage fiction.

The more compelling story that Mones tells is the history of Chinese cooking. Sam’s grandfather is Liang Wei, a paragon of Chinese cuisine, who wrote a book called The Last Chinese Chef. Excerpts from this “book” are used as epigraphs for each chapter so far, and Sam has Maggie read the first chapter of his grandfather’s book when they first meet. Sam’s father, who left China, and abandoned his family vocation, is working on translating this book into English, but he is falling behind on his task. I hope that we get to learn more about Sam’s father, Liang Yeh, because I think there’s a story there. The book within a book tells of Liang Wei’s work as an apprentice to one of the most renowned palace chefs in the Forbidden City, at least the part I’ve read so far does. It was fascinating. Entertainment and education, that’s all I want in a book. Mones’ descriptions of food are amazing in the first part of this book. I get hungry and want Chinese food whenever she describes a dish that Sam has made, or that someone has eaten. The novel sort of pokes fun at Chinese-American food, which I love, but the way true Chinese cuisine is described here makes me want to only eat that food for the rest of my life. It’s so complex—it’s not just about flavors, it’s also about texture and how spices work with the person who is eating it. Here’s a snippet of the wonderful way Mones writes about food (this is a description of the first time Maggie eats something Sam cooks): “She plucked a morsel from the side of the bird, low on the breast where the moistness of the thigh came in, and tasted it. It was as soft as velvet, chicken times three, shot through with ginger and the note of onion. Small sticks of bone, their essence exhausted, crumbled in her mouth…. She bit into another piece, succulent, soft, perfected. It made her melt with comfort. It put a roof over her head and a patterned warmth around her so that even though her anguish was still with her it became, for a moment, something she should bear. She closed her eyes in the bliss of relief (78-79).” This is a description of what is essentially a boiled chicken. Does it not sound like the best stuff on earth? Except the bone part, of course. That’s kind of weird.

So anyway, I’m going to get back to reading this lovely book. After I started writing this post last night I read a little more, and I’m beginning to like the idea of Sam and Maggie as a couple, predictable though it may be. They end up conveniently taking a trip to the Hangzhou province: Maggie to obtain a DNA sample from her husband’s possible daughter, and Sam to visit one of his uncles who is very ill. Sam acts as translator for Maggie with the girl’s family, and they just interact so well together it’s as if they were made for each other (the cynical side of me is like, yeah, they were made for each other by the writer of this book), and it’s sort of beautiful to watch these two lonely people come together.

This entry was posted in Fiction - general, Nicole Mones, Reviews by Jill. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Progress Report on Nicole Mones’ The Last Chinese Chef (by Jill)

  1. Maria Caswell says:

    Yum, yum, this sounds like a Food porn book. I like your cynical remark about them being right for each other because they were written to be. He he.

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