Off the Menu
$14.00, paperback, 368 pages
Literary scholars may debate the definition of “chick lit,” but Off the Menu falls firmly in the genre no matter how tightly or loosely it’s defined. Three Asian-American women struggle with their parents’ expectations and try to follow their dreams.
Christine Son writes in a light, breezy style. The focus of each chapter rotates among the women. Whitney is a lawyer in a corporate firm, but yearns to be a singer. Audrey is the adopted daughter of Houston socialites and wants nothing more than to be a literature professor. Hercules named herself after a favorite anime character in her native China, not realizing it was a masculine name in the U.S. She’s a successful chef, planning to open a second restaurant while dealing with her Chinese father’s refusal to adopt American habits or learn English.
Hercules is the only one of the three who stands out. Whitney and Audrey are all but interchangeable. While Whitney struggles to come to terms with her Korean parents’ opinions of how adult children should behave and prosper, Audrey struggles to come to terms with her socialite parents’ opinions of who adult children should marry. What makes Hercules stand out is the unlikeability with which she’s portrayed for most of the book. She screams at her staff and her father as if to prove that she is capable of making it on her own terms. The character softens toward the end of the book, but that serves to dull her edges and make her no clearer of a character than WhitneyAudrey.
The Asian heritage of all of the characters comes into play, usually in how they relate with their parents. However, the characters could almost be of any ethnic or economic class. The reader spends the most time with the characters when they’re together, apart from their families and in innocuous settings.
The most memorable character in the novel is Jimmy, a struggling artist Audrey encounters in a coffee shop. After Jimmy’s relationship fell apart, his partner refused to move out of their house. His legal troubles allow Audrey to bring him into Whitney’s orbit, and a road trip to Austin introduces him to Hercules. The scenes with Jimmy leap off the page, and readers may find themselves wishing Son had developed a novel around him rather than the three women.