Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

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Recent listening: a different kind of romance

So on the way to and then back from Chicago, I listened to THE LAST CHINESE CHEF by Nicole Mones, which made an interesting contrast to the Florand romances I’ve been reading recently.

I enjoyed it, but CHEF is definitely more on the literary side of romance. There’s nothing neat or quick about it, and very little pat about the ending. In some ways it barely seems like a romance, but I think that’s just in contrast to, say, Florand.

In CHEF, the main protagonist, Maggie McElroy, is a widow — her husband died a year ago — who is suddenly faced with a surprise: a paternity claim made by a Chinese family against her late husband’s estate.

I think modern American culture devalues grief and really carries a message that if you’re not over bereavement in a month or two, there must be something wrong with you. Of course this is not necessarily the case at all, so I loved Maggie and the way her grief is almost a physical presence in her life, even after a year. Listen to these first paragraphs:

“Maggie McElroy felt her life spiral away from her in the year following her husband’s death: she felt strange wherever she was. She needed walls to hold her. She could not seem to find an apartment small enough. In the end, she moved to a boat.

First she sold their house. It was understandable. Her friends agreed it was the right thing to do. She scaled down to an apartment and quickly found it too big: she needed a cell. She found an even smaller place and reduced her possessions further to move into it. Each cycle of obliteration vented a bit of her grief, but underneath she was propelled by the additional belief, springing not from knowledge but from stubborn instinct, that some part of her soul could be called back if only she could clear the way.”

Nice, eh? And then this paternity claim, out of the blue. A devastating shock, because hadn’t she known her husband after all?

Of course Maggie has to go to China, and there we pick up the other part of the narrative, because she meets the half-American Sam, who traces his ancestry back to great Imperial chefs and has been studying that style of cooking and is now just about to enter a major cooking competition.

And things happen, but slowly, unrolling like a slow river, never pulling the reader into a flooding cascade of events. This is not a thriller, though there are certainly things to worry about, eh? Like, is that little girl really Maggie’s husband’s daughter? And does Maggie want her to be? And if she is, does Maggie want to be tied to the child’s family, to her mother?

And how about that cooking contest, it’s really important to Sam, does he have a chance of winning with the Imperial style of cooking in the face of modernism, not to mention blatant nepotism?

And over and above all that, are Maggie and Sam going to be able to make room for each other in their lives?

A lot of this doesn’t get tied up with a neat little bow for the reader, but enough does that the ending is satisfying. Pretty satisfying, anyway. Enough so that you don’t have to be worried about reading it.

Okay, and? My goodness, the cooking, wow. There are these great little excerpts from a (fictional) book called The Last Chinese Chef, written by Sam’s grandfather. And we get wonderful little asides about Chinese food and Imperial cooking. It all is guaranteed to leave you dying for a trip to China, or failing that, for a taste of real Chinese food.

As it happens, though I can’t imagine making most of the brilliant and beautiful Imperial dishes detailed in this novel, I do have a cookbook by Fushia Dunlop called The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, which does in fact refer to many of the same events in Chinese history that we hear about in Mones’ story, and provides very suitable recipes, including one that really is in the Imperial tradition, where you remove the yolks from raw eggs, combine the whites with chicken stock, pipe that mixture back into the shells, and steam the eggs very gently so that you get what looks like yolkless eggs in the shell. (I don’t think I have the patience or nerve to try this, but the recipe is in there.)

So, yeah, now I’m planning to make a lot of Chinese food in the near future. As soon as I start cooking again. Which will not be this week, because I am closing in on the end of my current WIP, which means I am not interested in taking time to do much of anything else, including shop or cook. So right now I’m making extremely fast, easy things that basically require neither, like sauteed cubes of eggplant with harissa (the garden is producing a lot of eggplant).

Should be done with the rough draft by this time next week. I think.

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