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REVIEW: Back to the Good Fortune Diner by Vicki Essex

Dear Ms. Essex:

I’m always looking for books with unusual settings, and as soon as I saw the cover and title of your book at Harlequin, I put it into my cart. Back to the Good Fortune Diner is aptly named: Tiffany Cheung escaped Everville, New York and her parents’ Chinese restaurant for New York City, only to find herself back in both after a series of reverses. Desperate to make enough money to get back on track with a new job in publishing, Tiffany lives at her parents’ house, works in the diner, and tutors Simon, the son of the gorgeous quarterback she tutored years ago, when the two of them were in high school. Meanwhile, Chris Jamieson is trying to bring his father’s farm into the 21st century by growing exotic organic produce like bok choy while he single-parents Simon and tries to convince him that the path to success lies through a college education.

Good Fortune Diner cover

This is very much a story of a small-town girl who escapes to the big city, returns against her will and then discovers that happiness is right there in front of her. What sets this particular book apart is that Tiffany is Chinese-American and a member of what is apparently the only non-white family in Everville. Tiffany’s parents and grandmother dote on her brother, Daniel, who went away to college and business school but came back to live at home and help run the restaurant. Daniel is in a long-distance relationship with a non-Chinese doctor, Selena, which he hides because his parents expect him to marry a nice Chinese girl who will fit into their lives. Tiffany is the black sheep because she got a scholarship to NYU, majored in English, and is pursuing a career in publishing.

Chris left Everville after high school but came back almost immediately when he discovered that his high school girlfriend was pregnant with Simon. When his father lost his leg in a farming accident, his future was determined for him. It’s not his first choice, but he makes the best of it, taking care of his father and Simon and trying to make the farm more profitable. He wants Simon to have more options, but Chris likes living in Everville and doesn’t pine for the bright lights. He initially seeks out Tiffany on Simon’s behalf, remembering little about her other than her smarts and her studiousness. But as she spends time at the farm, Chris becomes more and more attracted and wants to know her better.

Tiffany’s high-school crush on Chris never really went away, but she can’t see how anything can work out between them since she has no intention of staying in Everville and he is tied to the farm and the town. Nevertheless, when romantic opportunity strikes, she grabs it, with somewhat predictable results.

Tiffany’s ethnic background shapes the story in a number of ways. Her relationship with her parents and her brother Daniel reflect the experiences of many Chinese immigrants. Her parents’ expectations, Daniel’s ambivalence about staying at home versus pursuing an independent future, and the tensions between the siblings all create a rich, unusual context for what is in the end a fairly predictable romantic storyline. Tiffany’s sense of isolation from her high-school peers rings true as well, and a scene with a former classmate succinctly captures what those interactions must have been like:

“Tiffany? Tiffany Cheung?”

She had no idea who this woman was. She nodded with a helpless, questioning smile in answer.

“Maya Hanes, from high school.”

“Maya…” It was hazy at first, but then she remembered. Maya had been in a few of her classes. Back then, she’d kept her straight, sun-kissed brown hair in a slick ponytail. She’d run with the sporty crowd. She was still fit-looking, but her hair had been cut super short and was gelled into spikes. “Yes. Of course. Hello.”

“I’d heard you’d come home. Are you doing all right? Someone told me you were hit by a car.” She looked her over, beaming. “You look fantastic.”

“Um. Thanks. I wasn’t hit. It was a car accident. I’m fine.”

“I’m so glad you’re okay.”

Tiffany’s awkwardness increased when Maya hugged her. She held herself stiffly in the woman’s light grip.

Other aspects of the book didn’t work as well for me, though. In terms of the romance, a lot of this story is not about Tiffany and Chris together, but rather parallel storylines about their lives in relation to other people. They’re interesting and they help me understand the characters, but they don’t advance the romance. This is a category romance, and the hero and heroine spend time thinking about each other (with accompanied mental lusting), but their actual interactions don’t work to build their romance for me. It takes half the book for them to kiss, and even then it seems to come out of nowhere and they both worry about what they did. And soon we’re back to the individual storylines, except that Tiff and Chris spend time talking or thinking about each other.

I appreciated the way the author portrayed the casual bigotry and racism of some of the characters, especially Chris’s father and Tiffany’s parents. But Chris’s father’s transformation was unconvincing to me. He was sufficiently authentic in his racist behavior that I couldn’t buy his sudden turnaround about Tiffany, and when he turned into the wise old patriarch at the end, I just rolled my eyes. Those kinds of attitudes, whether about race or class or culture, are ingrained and don’t change overnight, in my experience.

Equally problematic for me was the small-town-good, big-city-bad vibe that really took off in the last quarter of the book. As someone who never lived in a small town and for a long time viewed them as kind of exotic, I don’t have as much trouble with small-town idealizations in romance as some readers do. But the resolution to Chris and Tiffany’s conflict annoyed me all the same. For those who don’t want to be spoiled, I’ve hidden my objections below:

[spoiler]Tiffany is offered a job as an editorial assistant at a hot YA publishing house, and she takes it immediately, which sets up conflicts with Chris and Simon. The job is extremely demanding time-wise, but her boss is portrayed as a very nice person and Tiffany seems to have quite a bit of authority in selecting or rejecting manuscripts. She describes it as her dream job. But then it’s not, and she quits after three weeks to return to Everville, Chris and Simon, and the prescribed happy ending. This happens despite the fact that throughout the book she has genuinely loved her time in New York and her career path. The reader is supposed to believe that one conversation with Daniel makes her realize that she doesn’t really want her dream job and career, she wants to be a wife and mother (even though she hasn’t been shown to want these up to now). Meanwhile, Daniel realizes that he really loves to cook and run a restaurant, so he gets a job in a Chinese restaurant in New York City and voilà, the main conflict keeping him and Selena apart is resolved. It really ticked me off that Daniel got to do what he wanted AND get the girl, but Tiffany had to decide her dreams were wrong in order to get the guy. Instead, she’s going to make a career of tutoring in a small town. We never get the sense that tutoring per se (as opposed to tutoring Simon in particular) is all that rewarding to her, so it comes out of nowhere.[/spoiler]

I resented that Tiffany had to see her prior self as unsatisfactory in order to get her happy ending. She thought she was deeply flawed and unlikeable, whereas I saw her as human. And I finished the book feeling as if once again, the heroine has to change and choose among mutually exclusive options, but everyone else gets what they want. That’s not my idea of a satisfying ending.

In spite of these criticisms, I’m very glad I bought and read the book. I loved seeing the way that incorporating a non-majority character shaped and changed a number of aspects of the larger context and added in story lines that we don’t always see in the genre. Grade: C+

~ Sunita

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Note: This book is the January selection for the Smart Bitches’ Sizzling Book Club, so All Romance ebooks is offering a 50 percent eBook Buck Rebate until January 21 (Code: SBTBARE).

Sunita has been reading romances since she ran out of Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and Chalet School books and graduated to Mary Stewart and Georgette Heyer. Other old favorites include Mary Burchell, Betty Neels, Elsie Lee, and Edith Layton. Among current writers, she reads and rereads Anne Stuart, Tamara Allen, Sarah Morgan, Marion Lennox, Josh Lanyon, and Susanna Kearsley. She blogs as VacuousMinx and tweets as @sunita_p.

17 Comments

  1. cleo
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 09:20:26

    Thanks for the review. I saw an ad for this book not long ago and was intrigued. In fact, when I saw the review for Short Soup by Coleen Kwan yesterday, I thought it was this book, and then I figured it out. (if that makes any sense).

    Thanks for the spoiler – that’s the sort of thing that drives me crazy in romances.

  2. hapax
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 14:59:07

    Holy cow. The situation described in the spoiler is MUCH more in line with my favorite impossible personal fantasy than marrying a hot billionaire fallen angel were-chupacabra.

    I’d resent the heck out of a character who had a shot at that particular HEA and blew it.

  3. Sunita
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 15:21:48

    @CLEO: It drove me crazy too as you can tell! But I really liked other aspects of the book. In addition to the SB book club at the end of the month, Liz McC is hosting a book club reading at her blog, Something More, later this week, so there will be other readers’ takes on it for you to check out. I’ll add a link to Liz’s blog post when I have computer access.

    @HAPAX: I know! I could see it coming like an oncoming train and couldn’t make it stop. Maybe I just missed all the foreshadowing but it really bummed me out, especially since I could imagine workable compromises.

    Edited to add link to Liz’s book club post.

  4. willaful
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 17:43:27

    “small-town-good, big-city-bad”

    I think the fact that we both used the exact same phrase in our simultaneously published reviews really says something!

  5. Jayne
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 18:55:43

    @cleo: I saw the description too and wanted to try it but am on the fence about it now.

  6. cleo
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 19:44:57

    @Jayne: I think I’ll probably buy it at ARe to get the rebate (I usually get the SBTB book club books even if I never participate in the actual book club chat). Managing expectations sometimes works for me – if I go in expecting to be annoyed about the spoiler issue and the whole big-city-bad thing, I think I might enjoy the rest of it.

  7. Liz
    Jan 09, 2013 @ 20:46:51

    Thank you so much for the review. I was thinking about downloading the book for the SBTB chat and now I’m not so sure if I want to do that. I’ve downloaded the sample from Amazon and I will probably check that out and then decide whether or not I want to buy the full book. I have a lot of problems with the idea that a small town life is the be all and end all because I personally can’t stand small towns. I live in what I consider a small town in NYC–yes, we do have those–and I absolutely hate it. There is never anything to do here unless you want to sit in Starbucks or McDonalds all day and night. We do have one club, but it has a cover of almost $20, which is ridiculous for a town the size of the one in which I live (wikipedia says it is much more populous than I think it is, but I don’t really believe it–it sounds like it has taken the total people of the other 2 bordering towns and added them to the total). Of course there is rampant racism/culturism here as well, and it seems that those go hand in glove with life in a small town. Give me a big city any day. Here’s to the day I finally live in Manhattan or another city of its ilk (San Fran, Boston, or Seattle preferably).

  8. Sunita
    Jan 10, 2013 @ 00:36:21

    @willaful: Absolutely! I really liked your review, and as I said in a comment there, I think that Daniel’s story arc would have made a great storyline for a heroine. Or just for him, as you suggested. Either way, he just seemed to do a lot better in the end.

    @Liz: Big city neighborhoods can be surprisingly small-town-like, but at least if you don’t like the neighborhood you’re in, you can usually move to another one without breaking the bank or giving up all the things you like in the city.

  9. FD
    Jan 10, 2013 @ 04:07:08

    Thanks for the spoiler Sunita. I like the super line and with the multicultural aspect would almost certainly have picked it up, but that ending would have enraged me. I’ll wait for a library copy perhaps.

  10. willaful
    Jan 10, 2013 @ 10:55:30

    @Sunita: @Sunita: Thanks, Sunita. I can’t help wondering if she did Daniel’s story as a secondary because it would be the only way to sell it. I’m just speculating but the conventionality of Tiffany’s story felt imposed, to me.

  11. willaful
    Jan 10, 2013 @ 10:59:56

    I have a question which I didn’t think of while reading — Tiffany & Daniel’s parents deliberately moved them to a town in which they were the only Chinese people. How could they do that and still hold on to their expectations that their children would marry other Chinese people? I know Tiffany was shy in high school, but didn’t Daniel date at all?

  12. Ridley
    Jan 10, 2013 @ 11:40:43

    @Liz:

    Here’s to the day I finally live in Manhattan or another city of its ilk (San Fran, Boston, or Seattle preferably)

    Oh hon, no. Boston is not what you want. It’s just an enormous small town. Boston is for people who want to be near culture, sports and bars but mind their own business and get to bed at a reasonable hour.

    And I’m saving all my thoughts on the book for the discussion on @Liz_Mc2‘s blog tomorrow night. But, I basically agree with this review.

  13. Liz
    Jan 10, 2013 @ 12:18:17

    @Sunita:

    That’s if you have gainful employment. sigh. i’ll be here for awhile longer.

  14. Sunita
    Jan 10, 2013 @ 21:02:14

    @willaful: Through the network, if they’re anything like South Asian parents. You contact your relatives, friends, friends of friends, friends of relatives, etc. to find a Nice Boy for your Daughter and a Nice Girl for your son. When it comes to ensuring that your children marry within the culture, there are no connections that go untapped.

  15. Kaetrin
    Jan 11, 2013 @ 00:09:35

    I don’t disagree with your review at all Sunita. In the end, I rated the book a little higher but essentially, my complaints are the same. (Plus there was some sex physics which confused me but my review was already too long so I didn’t mention it there – I think Tiffany had to levitate). I wanted to read much more about Daniel and Selena. He stole the book for me. But much of their story was left undetermined IMO so that pushed my personal hot button (ambiguity).

    I did enjoy the book though and I liked the writing voice. And, the book did make me think, which is always good.

  16. Violetta Vane
    Jan 11, 2013 @ 08:22:34

    @willaful:

    That setup is very, very common. First generation Asian immigrants are often pretty clueless about how their kids are really going to grow up.

    It’s awesome seeing an Asian author getting a lot of attention with this book! The genre/story is soooo far outside my tastes there’s no way in hell I’d ever read it, but thumbs up in general.

  17. Book Club: Back to the Good Fortune Diner | Something More
    Jan 11, 2013 @ 14:02:44

    […] Sunita (at Dear Author) […]

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