This is part of the book club discussion being hosted over at Something More–consequently, this post is full of spoilers!
Before I say anything else, I want to say that I am so very glad that Vicki Essex’s Back to the Good Fortune Diner exists. There aren’t enough WoC female protagonists in mainstream romance and I suspect that there aren’t many interracial relationships either. I’m still very new to contemporary romance and categories in particular so I could be very wrong about this!
This book has a lot to recommend it–the prose is easy to read and Essex’s voice is very good. Tiffany and Chris are sharply and consistently characterized as are all the secondary characters. There’s a large supporting cast in this book, but I never felt lost or confused. Tiffany’s internal monologue is especially good.
The basic story is that Tiffany loses her job in publishing and after getting evicted from her apartment, comes back to the small town where her parents own a Chinese restaurant and where she grew up. There, she re-encounters one of her former tutoring clients and he hires her to help his teenage son through summer school. During the course of this, Tiffany and Chris re-connect and fall in love–although Tiffany appears to be so prickly and standoffish that I wasn’t always sure why Chris interested in her.
There were some continuity problems–Chris’s dad lost his leg in a farming accident and his high school sweetheart got pregnant (after begging him to have sex with her once without a condom) and I never could figure out which of these things was the real reason Chris dropped out of school–well, they’re both real reasons, but which one was the true trigger? If it had just been one or the other, would he have still come home? Or would he have stayed in school?
I also had a hard time buying Tiffany’s life in NYC–she has a cockroach infested apartment in over a restaurant in Chinatown that she gets evicted from but she was able to afford to keep her car (my understanding that parking in the city can be equivalent to rent on an apartment)? And I had an even harder time buying into her fiscal irresponsibility. It seemed very out of character for her to be that deeply in debt and it felt like a plot device for her to need to get a job as quickly as possible after returning to Everville. It’s barely mentioned except when it comes to her taking her clothing to the consignment shop and as a reason for her to take on the tutoring job with Simon.
Additionally, I felt like the reason that the Cheungs moved to Everville to be a bit contrived and, dare I say it, a bit Spider-Man-ish. I understand their desire to move out of the city, but for Tiffany’s father to give up what I expect was a relatively lucrative engineering job for a Chinese restaurant? I know a lot of immigrants end up working outside the fields in which they’ve been educated, but this didn’t feel like that kind of decision at all.
Chris’s father is an unvarnished racist and I really liked the way the text didn’t pull any punches with that. I did not, however, believe his change of heart after Tiffany finally calls him on it. It really didn’t work for me–what would have worked would have been William resolving to change his ways and still screwing up and Tiffany continuing to call him on it. Changing that kind of thinking is an ongoing process and no one is perfect.
I also really disliked Tiffany’s parents–they are fighting constantly and at one point Tiffany’s brother, Daniel, describes being beat with a piece of bamboo until Tiffany screamed. It just felt really unhealthy and borderline abusive. I know that Chinese cultural norms around the family can be very different from North American ones but even this felt like it was too, too much.
This last specific complaint refers to something that was mentioned once but it really upset me and left a bad taste in my mouth–early in the book, Tiffany is talking about what a rebel Chris was even though he was quarterback of the football team. One thing she cites as evidence of his rebelliousness is his attitude towards the “obesity epidemic”. First of all, assuming that this book takes place in 2012/13 and that they were in high school 14 years ago (about Simon’s age), that would have been 1998. That’s the year that the BMI guidelines were changed in the US and a lot of people who hadn’t been fat before suddenly became fat. In other words, there was no obesity epidemic when Chris was the quarterback of the football team. And since when is hating fat people rebellious? Last time I checked, it was pretty fucking mainstream and has been for years.
And finally, it bothered me that Tiffany had to realize that her dream job sucked in order for there to be a HEA. Chris doesn’t have to make any changes in his life and Tiffany’s brother is able to do what he wants and still get to try for a relationship with his internet girlfriend but Tiffany has to give up her dreams? It really made me think about a conversation I observed on Twitter between @MaryAnnVadnais and @Miss_Shelley_H on the conservatizing influence of the small town in romance. Tiffany’s world is made smaller and safer by her decision to give up on her dream and that made me really, really sad for her.