Food writer Nicole Mones has spent 18 years traveling to China, so it's fair to say that when she writes about a food writer who spends two weeks in China, Mones is up to the task. Although the novel contains no actual recipes, it won a World Gourmand Award in the category of Chinese cookbook. Such is the extent to which Chinese food is the thread that holds this story together. Cutting a clear path through the forest of noodles is narrator Elisabeth Rodgers, giving voice to the metaphor that extends from cooking to loving with a refreshingly crisp negotiation of the Chinese language.
The food writer in the story is a widow on a mission to determine if her late husband fathered a child by some other woman during his work in China. Since she may as well do some work while waiting for the paternity test results, Maggie profiles Sam, a competitive cooking descendant of the famous chef who authored the canonical kitchen text The Last Chef. Each chapter begins with a short excerpt from this mythic cookbook that relates as much about Chinese sociology as it does about the value of pork fat, read by the always delightful James Chen, whose voice unfortunately pops up only in these opening bits.
Foodies will find a treasure trove of practical information on the unjustifiable undervaluing of Chinese cuisine, and all listeners will enjoy some extended lessons on the cultural traditions that can heal lonely hearts. Rodgers is terrifically funny as Sam's uptight uncles, as well as the enigmatic lawyer and translator who assist Maggie with her husband's estate. Mones has written her third paean to Chinese virtues, and whatever you may make of the legal drama or the love story, you will never look at a takeout menu the same way again. Megan Volpert
In her satisfying, sensual third novel, Nicole Mones takes readers inside the hidden world of elite cuisine in modern China through the story of an American food writer in Beijing. When recently widowed Maggie McElroy is called to China to settle a claim against her late husband's estate, she is blindsided by the discovery that he may have led a double life. Since work is all that will keep her sane, her magazine editor assigns her to profile Sam, a half-Chinese American who is the last in a line of gifted chefs tracing back to the imperial palace. As she watches Sam gear up for Chinas Olympic culinary competition by planning the banquet of a lifetime, she begins to see past the cuisines artistry to glimpse its coherent expression of Chinese civilization. It is here, amid lessons of tradition, obligation, and human connection that she finds the secret ingredient that may yet heal her heart.
©2008 Nicole Mones (P)2010 Audible, Inc.
"The novel is rich with meaning and lore and an examination of loving relationships. Don't even touch this book when you're hungry. The descriptions make the aromas and textures float right off the page." (Amazon.com review)
"Early in her visit, Maggie scoffs at the idea that 'food can heal the human heart.' Mones smartly proves her wrong." (Publishers Weekly)
"Elisabeth Rodgers delivers the novel with verve. James Chen narrates the chapter openings, which are quotes from a revered ancient tome on Chinese food preparation and philosophy. Cookery lore; subtle aromas and flavors; bold colors and textures all vie with story elements that focus on culture and family to keep listeners fully engaged." (AudioFile)
I have no idea when -- or indeed why -- I bought this book. I am a low-key foodie of sorts, but plain and simple are the operative words. I have no knowledge of, or indeed, much interest in, anything Asian at all. Beyond the fact that we eat Chinese food on Christmas, I'm not really hooked into this kind of food, or the history of the country, or much of anything else Asian. (Nothing personal. Just that I already straddle three-and-a-half cultures. I can't take on another one.)
No kidding, my first recollection of this book is in my passing it by, time after time, as I scrolled through my iPod playlist, every time skipping it with a "What in the world was I thinking?" shrug. Don't get me wrong - I'm sure I did buy it -- must have been a hellva sale somewhere, I just don't know when or what I was planning.
So. Maybe three weeks ago, I was listening to Joseph Finder's new book, "The Fixer". That book ended, and because I had my hands deep into the dirt outside in a fervor of tree planting, I didn't stop to select a new book. I merely allowed it to rotate over to the next book on the list, which was, indeed, "The Last Chinese Chef."
Well, huh. In spite of all everything I've said, the book drew me in from the very beginning. The idea of this food writer, newly widowed, struggling to find her way mirrored, in a way, my daughter's situation. She too is a new widow, her husband having lost his battle with pancreatic cancer. No, no paternity claim (thank Gd) but at age 40, she's floundering a bit, too, trying to adjust to this new reality for herself and her three-year old daughter. So I found myself listening pretty closely, finding common ground.
It's a darn good story, I'll say that. I blush to admit that when I got back into the house, maybe three hours into the book, I actually went to check, to see if it was fiction or if it could be a true story on some level. It's fiction, but really really well done..... very credible.
The only times my mind wandered was during the parts where the "last chef" -- the real last chef, which was Sam's grandfather -- was telling the story of his youth, his escape, his hard times. I just have no cultural markers on which to attach that kind of history, so I wasn't quite as keyed in as I was to the rest of the story. My mind went to other matters during those parts. I also felt queasy at some parts of the actual "food" tales -- I can't deal with animal slaughter, and far worse than that, the idea of eating things that are still alive is to me pure evil. A couple of times I took out my ear buds to let that insanity pass. I wish that hadn't been there -- that's the stuff of nightmares as far as I'm concerned.
Still, those parts are minimal. I thought there'd be a slightly different ending than there was, but I wasn't at all disappointed. I finished it, but even then didn't plan to write a review -- I usually only comment on books that I really loved, or those I was really disappointed in. This one, while good, edged too close to "Meh?" territory. I liked it, but I didn't really love it.
Then, a couple of days ago, I realized something had happened. In the two weeks or so since I finished listening, several times I found myself remembering things that happened, or were said, in this book. There are lots of memorable story elements -- in fact, it's filled with them. One was the whole idea of eating always being a communal activity -- not something one ever does alone. Very interesting -- and compelling, the way it's told. Then too, the whole notion of some foods being for taste, others for texture, or color... I hadn't thought of any of that before, but now that I have, it's stuck in my mind. That's just two -- there are many other things I remember from having listened to this book.
So now I have to rate this long-ignored book much higher than I would have, even a couple of weeks ago. I can even see the day when I might listen to it again -- it's that good.
It's still way out of my cultural ken, but still, a fine novel. Very engrossing. I'm glad I finally latched on to it.
Hi all. I'm in my 50's (that's relevant, i think), and I favor fiction. I like the british sensibility, and was introduced to the Forsyte Saga through audible ... loved it! I happen to also like Chinese writers, but they are not well represented yet at audible. Looking to follow readers with similar tastes ...
i have listened to this book a few times already ... it is charming, soulful and performed well. don't hesitate to purchase this one!
Bookaholic. Favorite authors- Agatha Christie, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert A Heinlein.
Fun story, enjoyable listen. Wish this had been published before my visit to China as it contains very interesting insight into China and Chinese Food. Only one caution, listening to this story may make you hungry :-)
The plot is fairly simple, yet enjoyable. The plot and bi-cultural background of the male character provides a good vehicle for exploring Chinese versus American culture. The romantic interest is pleasing.
I'm not a cook or "food-ie" but found this story interesting and educational. I will probably re-listen at some future date to absorb more of the history and cultural details.
The performance is well done. It seemed a little stilted the first few minutes, but either that changed or I became accustomed to the reader.
A good use of a credit.
Its all there ... the modern juxtaposed with the traditional, the everyday transformed into the exotic, old love and new. A mix of healing and nourishing food for the body, the soul and the heart. There's even some intrique waiting to be cleared up, which keeps you in suspense. All this with a cast of the most likeable characters you'd ever wish to meet. Yummy!
Excellent narrators make it all come alive.
Sericulturalist and horticulturalist, mad scientist and earth oven baker.
A beautiful book that keeps you guessing until the end. Family, food, and loyalty combine into unexpected possibilities.
I really enjoyed the story and learning about Chinese food and some of the Chinese customs. After finishing the book, I was so hungry that I had to go out for Chinese. The pdf with a couple of recipes was pretty neat. I only wish it had more recipes.
I enjoyed the developing friendship between Sam and Maggie. Sam was my favorite character.
I felt Elisabeth Rodgers was by turns, superb/outstanding/exceptionally good, but also fell into a cadence at times that irritated me... Still, I had to give the narration 5 stars because I enjoyed her reading more than most audiobooks I've listened to. James Chen was incredible...
I was pretty touched throughout the story actually... I particularly enjoyed the last half hour of the book.
I'm glad I picked this one up... I want to listen to it again...
Being a Chinese grew up in China, I highly appreciate this book. The author shows that she does understand and appreciate Chinese culture and its relationship with its cuisine. Very entertaining listen.
I already have.
The kitchen with his father and uncles all working with him.
Clear and just the right amount of drama.
For Love of Food and the Stories it Tells
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