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Book Review: *Off the Menu* by Christine Son

  • Off the Menu by Christine Son
  • Publisher: NAL Trade (August 5, 2008 )
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0451224170
  • Back-of-Book-BlurbEven though it’s been ten years since their Houston high school days, co-valedictorians and best friends Whitney Lee, Hercules Huang, and Audrey Henley still delight in their once-a-month get-togethers where they talk, laugh, and confide in each other— although not about everything. Because each young woman has a deep, dark secret they think they could never share. Not even with their best friends. Then, during a girls’ weekend getaway, these three friends wind up revealing their most intimate truths—and realize that to get straight As in the real world, all you have to do is let go of the need to be perfect…

    She Is Too Fond Of Books’ ReviewChristine Son’s debut novel, Off the Menu, chronicles the lives of three Asian-American women in their late-20s.  Having graduated at the top of their high school class together, they have maintained a close friendship in the ensuing fifteen years.  Single and outwardly happy, the “Valedictorians” meet monthly to catch up on each others successes; they are:

    • Whitney Lee – the daughter of Korean immigrants, Whitney is an attorney who is encouraged by her high-achieving parents to push herself on the “fast track;” she harbors a secret desire to be a singer. 
    • Hercules Huang – juggles her position as owner/chef with the added responsibility of supporting her father, who brought Hercules to the U.S. as a child and refuses to assimilate into the American culture.
    • Audrey Henley – Korean-born Audrey was adopted as an infant by Texas oil tycoons.  Her mother looks at Audrey’s teaching job as a diversion, and would prefer to see her daughter join her in charity support and volunteer work.  Audrey’s hidden ambition is to secure an English professorship after she receives her PhD.

    Christine Son hits the nail on the head with her descriptions of the gap between parental wishes for their adult children and the children’s own goals.  In this section, Whitney (the aspiring musician), considers how differently she and her parents view music, while acknowleging the near-universal desire of parents for their children to have a better life than they themselves did:

    It was strange that Koreans of their generation should laud classical performances with such fervor while denigrating all other musical genres.  Perhaps their unfettered zeal was born out of envy, an emotional relic from their war-ravaged land when a violin equated with wealth, a cello with extravagance.  This same generation – denied piano lessons in favor of food – had made them compulsory for their children, and after ten years of what Whitney had considered to be pure torture, her mother had finally relented and allowed her to rest the metronome.  The irony wasn’t lost on her.

    Some of Christine Son’s observation are unique to the perspective of second-generation Americans, such as issues of assimilation and struggles over which, if any, ethnic traditions to retain.  In the case of Audrey, adopted into a wealthy Wasp family, her race and heritage have been denied her:

    Race was almost a taboo topic at home, and whenever she had raised the issue about her origins, her mother had immediately changed the subject, her palpable fluster training Audrey never to discuss the subject.

    Off the Menu started a bit slow for me; the three women seemed very distant to each other – despite being “best of friends,” they spoke on the phone only sporadically in between their monthly dinners.  The storyline picked up some when the women revealed their hidden desires and offered support to one another.  I did appreciate Son’s observations of the parent-child relationship and her insight into the immigrant experience, including the stereotyping that many minorities are subject to.  The target audience for this novel is probably 10-15 years younger than me (late 20s, early 30s), or grown children of foreign-born parents.

    The tagline on the cover says “When you don’t see what you want, it’s time to choose something … Off the Menu,” playing on the theme of Hercules’ Dragonfly restaurant.  To continue the metaphor, the Valedictorians do indeed choose off the menu; they learn that variety is the spice of life and make their own recipes for success. (I can’t resist a bad pun, and there are so many culinary terms I could have used here!)

    More information about Christine Son, including a fun FAQ,  can be found at her website and on her blog.

    Many thanks to New American Library (NAL, a division of Penguin) for providing a review copy of Off the Menu, which I reviewed as part of a TLC Blog Tour.  You can follow the rest of Chritine Son’s book tour here:

    One theme that really stuck with me is that of parents wanting their children to have a “better” life than they did.  Do you think this is universal?  How has this played out (or not) in your own life?  I was the first family member of my generation to go to college.  Education is very important to me and J., and it’s a given that our kids will attend at least undergraduate school.  In fact we joke/tease about which child will attend each of our almae matres (with the same levity that we argue over which kid roots for the Red Sox and which for the Yankees).

    10 comments to Book Review: *Off the Menu* by Christine Son

    • I think it is a universal ideal to want your kids to achieve more than you. I was the first in my family to get a bachelor’s degree, and so was my husband (then he got his master’s). We expect our kids to go to college the same way our parents expected us to graduate high school. If for some reason one of our kids wants to do an apprenticeship in manual labor or go in the military that’s fine too, but there is going to be some form of post-high school learning. My husband works at a university, so the tuition discount makes it easier for us to plan for our kids to go there too.

    • I like books about first- and second-generation immigrants. After all, all U.S. citizens have immigrants somewhere in their families! I’ll add this to my miles-long wish list. Like you, I just can’t stop adding books! Thanks for stopping by.

    • Great review, I’ll have to check it out. Although Hurcules is a funny name for an Asian-American chef… I’d agree, children always want to impress their parents and do better then them in terms of achievement, but you have to remember, achievement is not solely based on monetary goals…

    • I loved your honest post. Great review. I’m part of the tour as well, but I would love to answer your question. My parents didn’t want me in the big city for college, so I appeased them and went to a small school in connecticut..only to transfer to the big bad Boston city 2 years later to finish up. My parents also wanted me to be practical and get a job lawyering or something, but I went ahead and became a writer…while not what I would prefer in the field it pays the bills and is better than lawyering…etc. :)

    • Alyce – how fortnuate for you (and your bills!) that your husband works at a university. Do you get to audit classes?

      Beth – I enjoy Jhumpa Lahiri and Dalia Sofer also.

      Avid – Hercules is a name she gave herself, her real Chinese name is Xiao Xiao. I totally agree that monetary success isn’t the only way to measure achievement!

      Serena – My parents always encouraged me, but never pushed. We didn’t know about many options that were out there (schooling, travel, etc.), but I found them and followed them. It’s a bit ironic that my husband and I have returned so close to my home town.

    • Very nicely done review, Dawn.

      I think most parents DO want more for their children.

      I know that I want my kids to have opportunities that I did not. I’m not necessarily talking about material or financial things, but rather experiences. For instance, I wish I had done a semester of study abroad in college and will strongly encourage my kids to do so if I get the sense it would be a good fit for their personalities. Same goes for doing a Peace Corps stint sometime between college and settling down into a full time job.

    • I really enjoyed this book!

      I know that my parents made sure my sister and I were better off, and we were the first ones to go to college. And for my daughter, I constantly tell her that the sky’s the limit. I’d love for her to achieve her dreams and then some, and my husband and I work our butts off so that we can give her the things we never had.

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