In Soy Sauce for Beginners , the debut novel by Kirstin Chen, Gretchen Lin, aged thirty, leaves her floundering marriage in San Francisco to move back to her childhood home in Singapore. She finds herself face-to-face with her mother's drinking problem and her father's wish to have her succeed him in heading the family's artisanal soy sauce business. Lin's Soy Sauce was founded by her grandfather, Lin Ming Tek half a decade ago. Her Ahkong began his career at Yellow River, the Hong Kong soy sauce giant responsible for the mass-produced stuff that all of them Lins 'learned at a young age to abhor'. When Gretchen's grandpa became the head of the Singapore division, the president of Yellow River flew him to Hong Kong and treated him to a celebratory dinner at a fine restaurant where he 'had his first taste of real soy sauce, poured by a waistcoat- clad waiter into a porcelain dish small enough to sit in the palm of his hand. Shimmering and lively with a smooth, dry finish, this sauce was a sparkling stream to Yellow River's murky, stagnant, pond-water brew'. That was how Gretchen's grandpa had been inspired to open his own factory to produce naturally fermented soy sauce, made from the highest-quality ingredients. He made up his mind to master the ancient technique of naturally aging soybeans in century-old barrels, a production method that was was quickly becoming obsolete. He had then 'apprenticed with the Chiba Soy Sauce Factory, a premier artisanal soy sauce maker located on the island of Schodoshima, in Japan's Seto Inland Sea.' Gretchen's grandpa had quit his lucrative job in Singapore and his family for six months to pursue some obscure romantic dream. It was the fifties, barely less than a decade after the war but he was determined to learn the traditional process that 'yielded the delicate ,multifaceted golden broth that had long enhanced the flavours of Asian cuisine'. In spite of Gretchen's grandma's dismay and protest, her grandpa pursued his dream and left a legacy for his sons to carry on. Hence everything Gretchen knows about soy sauce she learned from her late grandfather, her father and uncle. They are a family who can talk endlessly about soybeans and their intricacies.
While she is back in her childhood home, she still thinks about heading back to San Francisco. Meanwhile, her college good friend, Frankie Shepherd whom she has known for years comes to work in Singapore . When Frankie arrives in Singapore , she has lost a fair bit of weight and she is no longer a bookish girl who hides 'the soft folds of her body beneath shapeless sweatshirts and baggy jeans.'
Frankie has left California to reinvent herself abroad while Gretchen is back in her home to get her act together. While Frankie is settling in and working hard at her new job at Lin's Soy Sauce, Gretchen is still mourning about her wavering marriage to Paul who has cheated on her with his computer science assistant. She has not told her parents about their separation and Paul's affair. Paul and her have been together for twelve years and married for five years.
Gretchen has obtained a master's degree in English and now she wants to pursue a master's degree in music education. Despite her privileged background and her academic accomplishments, she appears to have low self-esteem. Her mother does not understand why she has agreed to work at Lin's and thinks that she should remain in California. To her mother, after all she'd done to set her free, and here she is right back where she was .
In Gretchen's voice,
' My mother believed her best years were the ones she'd spent as a doctoral student at Cornell. From the very beginning, she was determined to prepare me for a life away from Singapore. She named me after her favourite Schubert lied even though she knew every one here would stumble over the name. She convinced my father to send me, their only child, halfway around the globe to boarding school in California. Later, when I was in college and my parents first met Paul, she counseled Ba not to immediately dismiss my ang mo boyfriend.'
Gretchen is torn between her parents' opposing desires, ultimately it is about what she personally wants. After being sent away at fifteen years old , she finds herself torn between two cultures. Amidst the narratives about the art and business of making the artisanal soya sauce and the need to rise above the food scandal and family feud , Kirstin Chen weaves together an insightful multifaceted tale about familiar love, loyalty, friendship and a woman's journey to find a place in the world. Soy sauce for Beginners is a commendable read.