Here is the tragic thing about my love for China: I really hate Chinese food. Especially the stuff you get in a fancy Chinese restaurant, the steamed fish or abalone or boney-chicken-bits. Too many chewy textures, too many things flavored with bai jiu. My years in China were more a case of finding a dish or two that I don’t mind, and eating that until I’m not hungry anymore, than finding local cuisine and sampling exotic flavors. Give me Beijing street food or American mall “Chinese” food any day.
I know that Dave Lowry’s descriptions of dishes in Chinese Cooking For Diamond Thieves were accurate, because they weren’t very appetizing. In one section, our hero is making a steamed fish dish, and even while I wanted the lao wei to win the prize for best Chinese chef in St. Louis (I’ll get to that), the smell of steaming carp is a distinctive one. And not my favorite one. And it’s associated with a distinctive taste. And actually it’s turning my stomach to think too much about eating it. Evocative prose for sure.
Tucker, the hero of Chinese Cooking for Diamond Thieves, is a lao wei in St. Louis, Missouri, trying to become a Chinese chef. Kind of steals the thunder from the diamond thievery, doesn’t it? Tucker is the best kind of unreliable narrator, beginning his list of dozens of rules with keep it simple, and trying to be completely honest from his very subjective perspective.
Fortunately, Tucker’s Mandarin is better than mine, so he’s able to eavesdrop on full speed Chinese, instead of just perking up at colors, numbers or “chubby white girl” out of a conversation. (Look, I’m able to do basic tasks in Chinese, but I talk like a baby.) So, when he overhears a girl at a rest stop telling her friend in Mandarin that she’s stranded, he gallantly offers her a ride. Also, she’s hot, because in fiction, stranded girls are always hot. The early-twenties romantic plotline wasn’t bad, ticking all the required boxes for witty banter, quirky semi-dates, and sexual tension that must be fulfilled when a Very Smart Guy falls in love with a Mysterious Girl, but fortunately not the focus of the novel.
Spoiler, or I guess, an un-spoiler: The diamonds are not hidden in the New Hampshire rest stop, so the novel doesn’t end with Corinne and Tucker retrieving the diamonds from the spot where they met. (I was expecting that for about 2/3s of the novel, and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t happen.)
The diamond thievery is interesting, and in general, the secondary characters are quite believable. Bao Yu, especially, is a lifelike mix of mockery and shyness. In China, when someone calls you by a polite, formal name and asks if you had a nice weekend, they probably hate you. A real friend will call you Pudgy or Specs or Slowpoke or something else mildly insulting. (I happen to know the Mandarin for zits — dou dou — because it was the affectionate nickname of one of the secretaries in my Yantai school. Ouch.) As Tucker gains friends in the restaurant kitchen, he naturally trades casual insults far worse than grass mud horse. It was a little bit odd how many of the English-speaking characters all spoke in the same snarky banter, but I chalked it up to Tucker’s narration, the way a friend will recount events in their own words, putting their own speech patterns on repeated dialogue.
Chinese Cooking for Diamond Thieves is a good story about new-adult identity, Chinese cooking and customs, and avoiding murderous Hong Kong gangsters in the midwest.
I received an eARC of this novel from the publisher to review. As always, all opinions are my own, and review copies have never stopped me from snarking about a bad book.