I just finished this book and it’s made me face a difficult truth: I’m not as cynical as I like to think I am. When Sam and Maggie finally get together at the very end I was overjoyed for them, despite my irritation at the predictability of their ultimate union. Mones writes it really well—the happiness they both feel to have found each other. Maggie is able to begin letting go of her grief, and Sam…. Actually, now that I think about it, we never get in Sam’s head after the deed is done, but Maggie perceives him as quite happy, as does his family. I’m not going to give away any other major plot points, i.e. I’m not telling you if the girl is really Matt’s daughter, or how the cooking competition turns out, but since I made such a big deal about the predictability of Sam and Maggie falling in love, I figured that was a spoiler that I needed to reveal.
I read a few negative reviews about The Last Chinese Chef on GoodReads today after I finished; major complaints were cited as the simplicity of the writing style (not necessarily a bad thing, if you ask me), the predictability of the romance (totally agree), and the stilted speech of the Chinese characters (didn’t really notice it). As I progressed through this book, I began to root for Maggie and Sam to end up together because I began to see that they needed each other, and though I knew how things were going to end up, I was still happy when it happened. I think that’s a trick to good writing: things that happen may not come as a surprise but if the author can get you to invest a bit of yourself in the characters, then it doesn’t necessarily matter that you knew all along how things were going to turn out. And Mones does this, or at least she did for me.
Mones steps away from focusing on Sam and Maggie a few times, in order to reveal aspects of the story that they are not initially aware of. For example, we spend a few pages in the head of the woman whose daughter may be Matt’s child, Gao Lan. We learn the story of her affair with Matt through her thoughts. When Maggie and Sam visit Gao Lan’s parents to collect the DNA sample, we spend some time with Gao Lan’s mother, and this part is in the first person. There’s also another manuscript in which Sam’s father tells Sam the tale of his time in China and his departure (this one was slightly disappointing—I really thought there would be much more excitement to Liang Yeh’s story). I felt that switching to Gao Lan was appropriate, and I did enjoy reading Gao Lan’s mother’s little section; seeing China from an older woman’s perspective was interesting, but I question why it needed to be in the first person. We also spend some time in the head of Sam’s Third Uncle Xie, the one who is sick in the south of China.
The best parts of this book are the descriptions of food, without a doubt, as well as the glimpses into Chinese culture. Sam and Maggie’s stories are really secondary to Mones’ efforts to tell the story of Chinese cuisine as it is in modern day China, as well as its rich history. I could have done with a bit more history and food, actually, but probably that doesn’t sell as well as the story of a middle-aged widow learning how to love again. I think that there’s something for most people in this book, though it may be a bit light for many. I suspect my co-blogger wouldn’t enjoy it as much as I did, but I would be curious to know what she thinks of it, too.