Kirstin Chen's new novel about a woman named Gretchen who flees her failed marriage in San Francisco to return home to Singapore is about a lot of things. It's about reinventing yourself at 30; realizing your parents' faults; the meaning of home. But it's also about soy sauce. Gretchen's family owns an artisan soy sauce business, and Chen's flavorful prose will have you thinking about the often dismissed condiment in a whole new way.
"I knew I wanted it to be a family business and something that was ubiquitous in Asia, but I picked soy sauce without knowing anything about it," Chen tells us. "I thought it would be mundane, but the instant I typed 'soy sauce' into Wikipedia, I realized I had something much bigger on my hands."
Through her research, Chen discovered that real soy sauce is made similar to wine; it's aged for months and has a variety of notes. She even visited a family-owned soy sauce factory in Singapore, where she met a young woman eerily similar to her novel's principal character. Like Gretchen, she was the great-granddaughter of the founder and had just started working in the factory.
This young woman also showed Chen one of the more striking rituals in the book: a concoction of soy sauce and Sprite sipped at the end of every factory tour. "She told me at the end of every tour, her grandfather would give guests soy sauce and Sprite, so I stole that directly from her and used it in the book," Chen says.
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Like her novel's character, Chen is from Singapore and lives in San Francisco, so she is intimately familiar with what it's like to return home. "One of the paradoxes of Singapore is that it's encouraged to get the best education abroad, but conversely, we're all encouraged to come home and start families," Chen explains. A big theme in "Soy Sauce for Beginners" is stacking what your parents want for you against what you want for yourself — something everyone can relate to.
Making matters more complicated, Gretchen's mother's hidden alcohol problem is finally exposed, and her mother needs her more than ever even if she won't admit it. How can you help your family when your own life is in shambles? It's just another one of the questions the book explores.
A hot new love interest, competitive friendship and all the complications that come with working at a family business keep readers hungry for more, making the book easy to devour in days.
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Reading date:Jan. 27, 7:30 p.m. at McNally Jackson Books in New York City.