11 January, 2013

Review: Back to the Good Fortune Diner by Vicki Essex

Occasionally a book comes along that catches every reviewer's eye at once. Maybe it's the marketing, maybe it's the theme, sometimes it's random chance. In the case of Back to The Good Fortune Diner it's the promise of a non-caucasian lead in a traditionally caucasian line. Vicki Essex is an author in the right place at the right time. Essex is also a talented writer. Ultimately, I think she's better than her book. I'm going to give Diner it's small town beats dirty big city vibe because that's a fetish. It's not my fetish, but the topic of message coding in this theme is more than I care to get into with this review.

I'm also going to give Diner it's simultaneous embrace and rejection of education - no I'm not. It was very problematic for me. The racism in the book was another stumbling block. For much of the story we have an interesting tale of two culturally different people learning to communicate with each other as adults but then it takes a sharp turn. The book couldn't sustain the weight of the material. Ultimately, it feels very After School Special in it's quick presentation and smooth resolution. A secondary romance felt it should have been the focus of (or a sequel to) the book. Finally, the brother and sister duo at the heart of both relationships felt completely wrong for their age. Whew. Let's unpack some of that.

Age before anything - Daniel and Tiffany are highly educated professionals in their mid to late thirties. both are so deeply enmeshed in their parent's possible view of them that they cannot see themselves. I felt their age was driven by the author's need to reunite her high school couple (Chris and Tiffany) through his teenage son. Drop everyone's age seven years, make the son a nephew, and all my issues with this part of the story evaporate. The emotional conflicts were realistic and interesting. Their timing was not. Tiffany and Daniel are both trying to figure out who they are. Both have degrees they don't want to use. While I completely disagreed with Daniel's choice of work I want to focus on Tiffany. About Daniel (certainly the more compelling sibling) I'd say that most 35ish year old men working the back of a kitchen (who are not chefs) have beaten their bodies to the point that they would welcome any alternate opportunity. That Daniel is in possession of funds, education, contacts and support but chooses to take a fairly low level position on impulse mystified me. He is banking on the financial support of a girlfriend he is estranged from while rejecting all paths that lead to his own financial stability. At 25, this is a mistake. At 35 it's running into poverty instead of away from it. Daniel will struggle for the rest of his life where a slight change of course could have given him the work he loves and the ability to enjoy his life while doing it. (I have to stop talking about Daniel. His dominance of a book not about him is turning into his dominance of the review.)

Tiffany has been chasing publishing jobs she doesn't find rewarding. I wanted Tiffany to grow into an appreciation of her own worth but she never does. Tiffany is the over achieving student, she's the impassive faced minority who magically brings the hateful white bigot into line, she's the understanding and self demonizing girlfriend and the overly devoted employee. Even as a rebellious daughter she's just a little too good. When the women of the town want to socialize with her Tiffany wonders why they would want to. Tiffany never wonders why she should want to talk to them. When Chris calls her out on her lack of interest she examines it as a personal flaw. Tiffany spends the entire book wondering what she offers others and ends it the same way. It is always Tiffany that is inadequate and Tiffany that must change. I wanted Tiffany to demand more for herself and standing up to a sick old racist was insufficient. Tiffany suddenly decides her jobs are unsatisfying. Her inability to make friends is her personal flaw and not a facet of her being uncomfortable in her own skin (this was hinted at but not developed). Breadcrumbs of an alternate career path are laid in the story. They are not used. Tiffany appears to give up her professional dreams so she can have the boy, because the boy trumps everything else in her life. She doesn't find a different dream, unearth a deferred dream, or reveal a dream she was afraid to follow. She settles. She's going to be with the boy and figure the rest out later. Again, understandable at 25 but troubling in your 30's.

I think Back to The Good Fortune Diner would be a stronger read without the racism. Or a stronger read with more racism in it. Of course the only Chinese family in a town is going to face bigotry. I've repeatedly lost friends to other states because they wanted their children to grow up as something other than "the Asian kid" in town. Having Tiffany face racism from one man was dealing with it in a token manner. Tiffany stands up to him, he folds. He's a softie underneath anyway. It's true enough in that it could happen, but it feels far too pat. Leave it out. Adding in Daniel's concern that his parents are bigots without really resolving if they are makes the post-racial ending even less satisfying. Daniel's story was too big for this book. Including all of it not only short changed Chris and Tiffany but it ended any chance to resolve the core of their arrested development. Why do their parents constantly fight? How did they both feel about the sudden move from the big city to the small town when they made it? Why did they press their children to get educations if they don't want either of them to use them? How does this dynamic stop influencing their children and start informing them? Chris and his father get their emotional issues resolved, leaving Tiffany as a Magical Asian when I wanted her to be the star. Removing most of Daniel's romance would have given Tiffany more room to earn a happy ending instead of concede her way to one.

All praise to Essex for making me care enough about her world and her prose to devote so much thought to it. I'm absolutely going to read her next book but I have to give a mixed recommendation to this one. Essex suffers from a lack of space over a lack of ideas. She might be better served by a longer word count. Back to the Good Fortune Diner is more enjoyable than my review suggests. It's actually very good, it just isn't amazing. There's a joke in there about the no-win life of the American (or Canadian) born Chinese, but I'm not going to explore it.

*I also wanted to explore Daniel's unconventional choice not to be the dominant financial power in his relationship and his willingness to subvert that gender norm. Really, the wrong couple led the book.

* If you haven't read the discussion at My Extensive Reading I highly suggest it. Among many excellent comments Sunita brings up a point I'd failed to consider. 

1 comment:

  1. I agree with everything you said! You were able to articulate some things I couldn't.

    I felt overly critical in my own review but as you correctly pointed out, it came from caring so much about the characters and thinking about them so much.