Nicole Mones' The Last Chinese Chef is swell. It was enough to make me think: "I should go to China." I discovered it while traveling and have been telling people "You have to read this" ever since. (I suppose I should have known about it; it has been nominated for various prizes and the author write, on occasion, for Gourmet. Indeed, I think this was excerpted in the magazine (not that I noticed) as the first work of fiction to be so honored.
So, the book does show signs of Mones' background. The protagonist writes for a chi-chi foodie magazine (called "Table" rather than "Gourmet") and her editor is a friend named Sarah (some reviews have said, read Ruth Reichl). Whether more of this is drawn from her background, only the truly literati will know. The novel is rooted in grief for a lost husband, and another loss which I will leave undescribed to avoid spoiling the book some -- but let;s just say a loss of integrity possibly. It is rooted, as well, in a trip -- from an America the protagonist usually writes about (including refusing to write celebratory holiday tales and writing, instead, about those who eat out on those days) to a traveler to China, for deeply personal reasons (covered a tiny bit by a favor her editor friend does, of assigning a piece for her to write while there). She has stripped her life while mourning -- and perhaps this trip is to rebuild, we thnk as readers at the outset. And we are right, in many ways. There is a budding romance, there is a lot of food (and the revelation to the protagonist that Chinese food is definitely NOT Chinese American food). There is cooking, and there is reflection on the cultural embeddedness of food, and the meaning of transplantation -- migration -- from one culture to another and of significant cultural change in the form of the Cultural Revolution. Interspersed throughout is a concocted 1925 food classic from China, entitled The Last Chinese Chef, purportedly by Liang Wei. In the course of hte novel, the many cultural meanings of food are elaborated -- relationship and community, balances of various sorts; and, the meanings of generational change, of a new multinationalism, of the move from imperialism to communism and. . . to the Olympics emerges.
I have to say it. I loved this book. Read it. I do not love every book I read. But I love the ones I put on this blog that are about food. I am sure there are criticisms to be made. Perhaps the Chinese history is off or the food not as lovingly described as you woudl want. But this book, well, it is special. It made me think in new ways about loss and possibility, hope and freedom, and, most definitely, about food and the creation of meals.
Check out Nicole Mones's website for some reviews of the book from such prestgious places as "The Wall Street Journal" and, though also available there, an NPR thing here. Also available there, but hey to make it easy, is a reading of a part of the novel by Mones and different excerpt by someone else. Fopr an NY Times Review, try here. For an intervierw with Mones in the "California Literary Review", here's where to click.