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The Last Chinese Chef: A Recommended Book [Part One]

Posted on May 6, 2007 by

One of the things I like about our public library here is that it offers several shelves of advance reading copies—uncorrected proofs of books released before their publication date. Not only are the books new and clean but they offer an opportunity to read a book before hearing anything at all about it. Often, I’ll put three or four of these in my bag when I go to the library. Sometimes I’ll only end up reading the first page of one of these books, or a few pages. But this novel, The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones, I savored right through to the end. It’s a book that made me want to learn the Chinese language, take up Chinese cooking, or, better yet, travel to China, and visit the city of Hangzhou, a city centered around a manmade lake described thus:

Then their street ended at a T intersection, beyond which stretched a dreamy blue mirror of water dotted by islands and double-reflected pagodas. Hills covered with timeless green forest ringed the opposite shore. Small, one-man passenger boats sculled the surface, their black canopies making them seem from a distance to be random slow-moving water bugs. As far as she could see around the lake, between the boulevard and the shore, there stretched a shady park filled with promenading people. The noises of the city swallowed themselves somehow into silence behind her. She felt a sense of calm spreading inside, blue, like water.

The woman feeling this sense of calm in Hangzhou is Maggie McElroy, a forty-year old woman, an American, a food writer, a woman who’s lost her husband in a sudden accident, and who begins the novel, a year following his death, still absorbed by grief. She lives on a small boat at a marina in Los Angeles. She refuses invitations from friends. Her life has “shrunk to a pinpoint.” Then, p. 3, she receives a phone call from Beijing that sets the novel in motion. A former colleague of her husband’s, from his Beijing office, calls to tell her that a woman there has filed a paternity suit against her husband’s estate.

Maggie flies to Beijing. A food writer, she also manages to land an assignment for the trip: writing a feature on Sam Liang, a young chef vying for a spot on the Chinese national cooking team, a team preparing to compete in a cultural competition that is set to coincide with the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. In Beijing, and later in Hangzhou, the two plot lines of the novel unfold—the story of the paternity suit against Maggie’s husband and her growing relationship with the young chef, Sam Liang. In a sense though, these plot lines are pretext—a way to keep us reading as Nicole Mones, a food writer herself, offers elaborate and loving and gorgeous descriptions of the food and culture of China.

Healing place and healing food and a series of healing conversations—that’s what Nicole Mones is offering here—-

[You can read part 2 of this piece here.]