Book Club: Back to the Good Fortune Diner

Note: This is a discussion, not a review. There WILL be spoilers.

The threaded comment system on free WordPress blogs is not great for long comment threads. It’s probably best not to use “reply” and we’ll hope it doesn’t get too confusing. Sorry!

I enjoyed a lot about Back to the Good Fortune Diner, but there were things I found frustrating or disappointing, too. Because a lot of the frustration came at/from the ending, it retrospectively colored my feelings about the book, but writing about it reminded me of how much I loved.

I like my romance on the realistic side. I appreciated the slow, in-depth character development. Some were types (especially Tiffany’s grandmother and Chris’s dad) but not stereotypes; they’re types in the way that alpha heroes are, familiar but with individual characteristics.

This realism showed in little ways, too, like names. Lots of romance protagonists have names that seem designed to be “sexy” or are plucked from top-ten lists for today’s babies. Tiffany, Daniel and Chris are names thirty-something people with their backgrounds might actually have. I liked the reference to Tiffany and Daniel’s Chinese names, which only their grandmother uses. That’s true of many of my students, who have a Chinese name on the class list but prefer to use an English one.

They also seemed like real people with real problems. There are plenty of early-thirty-somethings whose career trajectories don’t match their degrees or their dreams, and who are trying to figure out what to do next. One of the best things about the book is that because Chris and Tiffany are struggling with similar family conflicts and self-doubts, these aren’t presented as “Chinese” issues. Tiffany’s ethnic background is part of who she is, but doesn’t make her alien or exotic; it’s an issue in the romance but not the issue. Essex’s book reminded me of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, with its upstate New York diner and its reflection on how family responsibilities trap us, burden us, reward us, and make us who we are. Books like Good Fortune Diner put paid to the idea that genre fiction can’t or doesn’t explore the “important” issues literary fiction can.

There are some fun, flirty interactions between Chris and Tiffany, like the double-entendre discussion of kittens (“Can I come over and play? I just can’t stop stroking him,” etc.). There are movingly awkward ones too, like the first “date.” Chris and Tiffany haven’t seen each other since high school (when she had a huge crush on him) and both live with their parents. Of course it’s tricky for them to figure out an adult relationship. I also liked that Tiffany the uptight nerd was not shy when it came sex. When she finally got that longtime crush naked, she went right for the blowjob. (I was surprised, because this line isn’t always so forward). It’s great when heroines are active in their admiration of their men and enjoy giving as well as receiving pleasure.

Molly O’Keefe did an interesting interview with Essex where she asks about the new (or revert to classic) longer page count for Superromance. Essex said:

I discovered the magic of secondary plots. . . . I got to approach the conflicts my main characters, Tiffany and Chris, faced from a different angle through Tiffany’s brother, Daniel. I actually enjoy secondary plots for that reason. You can explore different aspects of a theme through other characters’ perspectives.

I loved Daniel’s subplot, but it got short-changed. I would have liked to see it finished in a sequel where he takes center-stage (as O’Keefe has done in some of her own Superromances). Sadly Daniel, like other “unconventional” heroes/heroines such as Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s older lovers, is probably confined to the secondary plot: a Chinese-American hero who decides to work in a restaurant instead of using his MBA, and might stay home to raise future kids? I’d love that, but suspect it’s a hard sell.

The flip side of the slow, realistic development in the first two-thirds of the book was that the resolution was way too quick and way too neat (except for things left hanging, like Tiffany’s family situation). I expect category romance to take some plot and characterization short cuts, but when you’ve got a realistic sour old racist, I’m not going to buy that one conversation turns him around.

There also wasn’t enough romance. I wanted more time with Tiffany and Chris and their developing feelings. For people their age, with their baggage, the quick “I love you,” or at least quick “let’s get married” was extra unconvincing. This ties into romance’s Small Town Idealization Problem, which was on show here if not fully endorsed. I would believe Tiffany deciding her dream job didn’t turn out to be her so dreamy, just what she thought she “should” want, and that she’d decide to move back to her home town. But those changes weren’t well-prepared for. And one can make those decisions without demonizing cities, which can have a sense of community and be perfectly fine places to raise kids (here again I felt Essex was relying on romance shortcuts that didn’t fit the tone or plot of the majority of the book). Tiffany sacrificed everything; it didn’t seem even. With more space at the end, there would have been time for them to fall in love more slowly and find a solution that gave them both something–this was kind of hinted at for the future, but not explored.

Finally: points to Harlequin for a nice cover image with models who actually look like the characters. Points off for wonky formatting; when ePub is all you sell at your site, you should be able to get it right. Courtney Milan’s self-published books, which I read on either side of this, were miles better.

I feel like I’ve barely touched on my thoughts about this book. Now it’s your turn! Here are reviews I’ve found from online friends. Feel free to link more in the comments.

Sunita (at Dear Author)

Ridley and Jen (at Goodreads)

Willaful (at Karen Knows Best)

Meoskop (at It’s My Genre, Baby)

Kaetrin (at Kaetrin’s Musings)

Natalie (at Radish Reviews)

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56 Responses to Book Club: Back to the Good Fortune Diner

  1. Las says:

    Like you, I often felt really frustrated with this book. The relationships within both families were the strongest points of this book and neither were resolved by the end. I felt that Tiffany and Daniel’s parents were completely dropped from the story. Since their toxic relationship to each other was a big factor in both their children’s decisions, why wasn’t that explored a bit more? Why, when we were shown over and over how critical and demanding they were, didn’t we see their reactions to Tiffany dropping her career completely to settle down with a white farmer, and Daniel deciding to work in a restaurant in NYC and marry a white doctor? I didn’t expect or want a magical HEA in that department, but an ending would have been nice.

    As for Chris’s family, now THAT was a magical HEA if I ever saw one. At the time I was reading this, I was in the middle of some discussion online where many people insisted that the way to end racism was for POCs to be nice and patiently educate racists, so to see Tiffany explain to Chris’s dad why the things he’d say were problematic and have him accept that and not be racist any more just bugged the hell out of me. I agree with Meoskop’s review–there either needed to be no racism or a lot more of it. The way it was written did a major disservice to the issue.

    I loved Daniel and found him a lot more compelling than Tiffany (though I did like her). I think that’s partly due to the fact that Tiffany and Chris’ relationship took so long to develop. While I appreciated the slow buildup, I think there were several chapters in a row where they didn’t interact at all. Daniel and Selena picked up the slack there, and I would have loved to have spent more time with them. Daniel’s decision to work as a cook in a restaurant in NYC was baffling, though. Nothing wrong with that kind of work, but he has an MBA and money in the bank–if restaurant work was his passion, why not go to culinary school or open/manage a restaurant of his own?

    This is a small town vs. big city book, which I’m not a fan of, but I thought could go with it with the book. That didn’t work out too well for me. I’m just going to agree with everything you said. Tiffany giving up every single thing she had wanted, without the tiniest compromise, was awful to read. Why not have her explore freelance editing or something?

  2. willaful says:

    I think we said pretty much the same things in our reviews — not a whole lot to discuss. 😉

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      We do seem to be on the same page when it comes to the big picture.

      • Jen says:

        Argh, completely forgot about this discussion (yesterday was kinda hectic)! But like willaful said, I pretty much agreed with all of your points :).

      • Jen says:

        Also- thanks for linking to my review! I’m still reading through all of these comments, a lot of good points here that I hadn’t even though of and agree with.

  3. sonomalass says:

    I wanted to participate in the review-a-thon, but I failed to finish the book in time. I’m just at the point where, from what you’ve written, it’s about to fall apart — the conversion of the grandfather was the first really unbelievable moment in the book for me, and that’s where I stopped last night.

    I did like the set up, especially the depiction of the Chinese family in small-town USA; it rang true to me, with details that are, as you say, type and not stereotype. I appreciated the depth and importance of how Essex wrote about it without letting culture completely define the characters.

    Like you, I appreciated the slightly older characters and their issues with economic struggles, family and the intersection of the two. Chris dropping out of college, Daniel working at living at home despite his MBA, and Tiffany struggling to figure out what to do with an English degree (a la Avenue Q) were interesting and complex; no easy answers, which even as I was reading had me wondering if the resolution of this would work for me. We’ll see, because I still plan to finish the book.

    This is a recurring issue for me with romance, category in particular. I don’t like simplistic set-ups, but the complex ones often get resolved in a way that seems simplistic — people’s very believable and interesting problems and issues sort of melt away without much in the way of lingering effects, and that troubles me. I don’t think happy endings have to be all perfect hearts and flowers; there’s a real happiness in knowing that a couple is going to work together going forward on the issues they do and will face.

  4. I had a pretty strong reaction to this book — loved half, hated half, can’t not talk about it. From reading the reviews above, it’s clear I’m not alone! I wrote a bit about it here:

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Thanks, Olivia. I hadn’t registered how many times “bitch” is used in this way, but Tiffany’s self-blame bothered me too. She was only around for a few weeks, and she had always said she was leaving–where did these guys get off expecting so much of her?

      This made me think of a time in a meeting where I said “I don’t mean to seem bitchy, but . . . ” In the situation, I doubt a man would have apologized for mild frustration or pressing people to reach a decision and not re-open closed questions. But I regret saying that and realized how much it had to do with gendered scripts rather than my actual behavior. Tiffany doesn’t seem to achieve any awareness that many of her “bitchy” responses are normal and/or valid.

      • I couldn’t resist the idea that every time Tiffany was being “a bitch,” it meant she was putting her own needs first. You know, like healthy people should do. Romance heroines often lean hard on the theme of self-sacrifice, but this one took things just a bit too far for my comfort.

  5. willaful says:

    Something I didn’t think of when I read/reviewed, but which has been niggling at me since: the family moved to a community in which they were the only Chinese people. How were the parents holding onto the idea that their children would invariably marry other Chinese people? If that was important to you, would you move to such a community? Makes no sense to me. It’s part and parcel of the whole feeling that the story there could have been was squeezed into a format that didn’t entirely fit it.

  6. Pingback: Back to the Good Fortune Diner, Vicki Essex — Radish Reviews

  7. Liz, I am grateful to you for inspiring me to read this, although I haven’t finished it yet either. I’m at 83% and Daniel just showed up at her new job. I confess, I didn’t actually like the Daniel subplot as much as some of you did, although it was necessary for revealing the family dynamics, and the scenes with him and his girlfriend online were LOL funny. Maybe I didn’t like his story because I felt it was a distraction from the (for me) missing connection between Chris and Tiffany–she was hiding so much, and it seemed like she had as a teenager too. Then, all of a sudden he’s in love with her, without her ever revealing much of herself besides one night with too much wine.

    I’m disappointed to hear there is no resolution with Tiffany’s parents–I thought the real strength of the book was depicting that family system, and the way conflict and anxiety bounced around within it. Without implying all Asian-American/Canadian families are like Tiffany’s, I thought it did a good job portraying some things a non-Asian person like me sometimes has trouble understanding among my Asian friends and their relationships with their parents–different ways of expressing very real parental affection, and how ambivalent it can feel to second generation kids. And I know this diversity is one of the reasons you picked it, Liz, and that it grabbed my attention.

    Still, I’d give Essex another try after reading this, and I’ve recommended to my friend who grew around her parents diner and disappointed them by not becoming a chemist. It will be fun to get her take on the story!

  8. willaful says:

    Olivia, you make some really good points. I’m surprised I didn’t notice all the “bitches” since that’s generally something that really leaps out at me.

  9. Liz Mc2 says:

    I feel that my initial post didn’t convey how much I admired the writing in this book. There were some great images, and Essex has an eye for the telling detail. Kaetrin, I think, mentioned the wrecked car looking like a giant had clapped it between his hands. I liked Simon with his baggy hoodie and jeans “looking like they were swallowing him whole”–and his earbuds in. I have that kid! Or Tiffany always having the wrong shoes at the farm. Chris smelling the coconut in her hair. All these little concrete things helped make the characters seem so real. The reason I feel so worked up about the way the storytelling, in my opinion, fell apart is because Essex made me CARE about these characters, made them so real. That’s a real achievement, and why I will definitely try her again. I hope she writes more Asian characters, too.

    • Mary Ann Vadnais says:

      I’ve been waiting for this observation, in particular.

      I think this book’s strength was in details that drew such extremely strong characterizations that I had powerful feelings about the characters–but as individuals. I couldn’t put a finger on the source of my frustration until the scene where Chris pulls Tiffany into his arms on the side of the road and is overwhelmed with the smell of her body and hair and leans in to inhale. At this point, I felt that there was some thread of *delicious* tension that had been broken, but also perfect focus on where I was struggling as a reader. Previous to this moment, we have understood, for example, Tiffany’s self-consciouness about smelling like the cooking oil from her parent’s diner; this is exactly the kind of world-building and fine detail I look for in contemporary. When that characterization is transformed into a detail, perceived from the hero’s POV, which is erotic, this is the shift that makes the magic of romance. However, this transformation was so rare, that when I encountered it in the roadside moment, it threw into relief my sense that I wasn’t, exactly, reading a romance. This break in the reader contract then, I feel, was the source of my frustration.

  10. Liz Mc2 says:

    Oops, I broke my own rule about not using “reply.” because I was using the WordPress app.

  11. Liz Mc2 says:

    Amber, I agree about the family dynamics. I recognized a lot from the stories my students and friends tell. And I liked how Chris had similar issues so it wasn’t “all Asians are like this” or “only Asians are like this.” I wish Tiffany’s family dynamics had been more resolved. That got dropped too much.

  12. Ros says:

    I’m halfway through and I admit that if it hadn’t been for the book club, I wouldn’t even be that far on. My main issue is that I don’t like Tiffany at all. I don’t much care for anyone in her family, either. Chris seems like a Nice Guy (TM), struggling against a bigoted, angry father and a sulky teenage son. And for a romance novel, the romance is incredibly slow to get going. So far, there’s been the first ‘date’ with the kiss at the end and that’s it. I don’t mind if things go slow, but this feels glacial to me.


    Obviously with only half the book read, all of my comments are provisional. But here goes nothing. I felt that the parallel between Daniel’s relationship with Selena and Tiffany’s with Chris was quite heavy handed. She’s the Chinese girl in the white family; Selena’s the white girl in the Chinese family. Poh Poh wants Daniel to find ‘a nice Chinese girl’; William hates the Chinese girl his son likes. The Chinese family expect their children to work in the diner; William expects his son and grandson to work on the farm. And so on.

    I don’t really understand small-town America. It is nothing like small-town England, from what I can see, simply because our geography is so different. I can’t imagine anywhere here that you’d take things to a second-hand shop and worry that your parents would find out (maybe really remote parts of northern Scotland?) And if you were worried, you’d just drive to the next town. So, yeah, different.

    But the thing I just didn’t understand at all is why this particular Chinese family were there. The father was an architect. Why did he end up running a diner and hating his life in the small town? And why on earth did Daniel with his MBA make a living giving driving lessons and helping out in the diner? They obviously had aspirations for the children to go to college and so on. Why stop after that? Maybe it gets explained in the second half of the book, or maybe it’s obvious to everyone else.

  13. I liked her use of language a lot too, and found the scene at the lake painted beautifully. The angsty moments were vividly painted too–in the buffet restaurant, with the steam trays. There was something so lovely about them filling plates with bad food from each other’s cultures!

  14. Las says:

    “Tiffany doesn’t seem to achieve any awareness that many of her “bitchy” responses are normal and/or valid.”
    I thought that made sense considering the circumstances. It’s so hard to be the one who does things completely differently from what family rules dictate. I could see how she would compare herself to her brother, who stuck around and made so many sacrifices for the family, and think of herself as a bitch. Not that I agree that she is a bitch, but I could see why she would think of herself that way.

  15. kaetrin says:

    Before reading the comments, I’m just going to say: “Snap!”. I haven’t read all the reviews above yet, but yours, mine, Sunita’s and Willaful’s basically agree .

    And yes, I definitely wanted more of Daniel.

    • Mary Ann Vadnais says:

      Daniel’s story really pulled me through, particularly. His struggle seemed nearly insurmountable, and I was gratified that it was his interactions with Tiffany that forced his confrontation with his unhappiness and restlessness. Selena was particularly fascinating to me–sexually forward and so tender. It seemed right that Daniel would be attracted to someone that I sensed, strongly, would provide a kind of unconditional and encompassing love. She was effusive, understanding, and openly schmoopy–and he was helpless to it. Like others, I wanted this sequel. I think I wanted it because it was so romantic, and the feeling I needed more of from Tiffany and Chris.

  16. meoskop says:

    First, omg yes what Olivia says.

    “That isn’t a relationship: it’s a hostage situation.”

    In her review she has stated very clearly (and better than I) what I meant by Tiffany conceding her way to a happy ending. I also felt all the inclusions of her artistic ability were wasted since they meant nothing to her career resolution.

  17. willaful says:

    Ros, it is explained, but I agree with you that a lot about the situation doesn’t add up. Now I’m imagining Tiffany going to medical school like her parents wanted and then them still wanting her to work a the diner. 😉 But I actually think Daniel working there was about him feeling like he needed to be a buffer between his parents rather than them pressuring him to do so.

    I’m glad you put in a positive word for the writing, Liz, because I think we’re focusing a lot on the negative. Seen against the genre as a whole, I think the book has a lot to recommend it, and I don’t mean just because there’s a non-white character.

  18. meoskop says:

    Second is to Ros – small town America is nothing like small town America in romance, but yes, both are nothing like small town Europe. If that made sense. Small towns in America can be an hour (or more) by car from another. They are gossip mills. Tiffany’s father probably got a direct phone call three minutes after she dropped the clothes off no matter what the owner said. The questions you pose are only partially answered by the second half of the book and those that are are answered incompletely.

    The relocation happens after the murder of a family member. I still found it incredible. Engineering is such a specialized field that engineers generally can find work easily and in any size community they choose. If her father had a less marketable degree, that isn’t explained. While the move seems to be the reason for all the family discord there was no resolution of that discord or exploration of it’s roots.

  19. meoskop says:

    Thirdly, absolutely Willaful. Essex can write, she’s (stylistically) one of my favorite new authors in years. It is why the flaws stand out, because we care that they exist.

  20. It says a great deal for Essex as an author that we can sit down and debate her characters’ motives and actions in such depth and detail. And the first chapter of this book was one of my favorite contemporary openings ever — Tiffany in the hospital after the crash, hearing her family arrive rather than seeing them because they’re arguing even before they get in the room. I laughed even as my heart broke a little.

  21. willaful says:

    Yes, very true, meoskop and Olivia. The usual cardboard characters don’t leave much room for anything beyond “he was an asshat and she was a doormat.”

  22. Liz Mc2 says:

    Mary Ann, your point above about the smells, and how you wanted more of the shift that happens there–I think that’s part of what I meant when when I said there wasn’t enough romance. The most interesting tensions here are not between the romantic partners. And yet, I totally believe that Essex can figure this out, because she is so good with those telling details, they just aren’t deployed enough between Tiffany and Chris.

    Like Amber, I liked the eating each other’s bad food scene. And I have worked behind a steam table in my youth. The smell afterwards, OMG–yes, she’s great at evoking those sense experiences.

    Also, I like the fact that she uses humor to leaven all the angst and conflict. There’s a lot of unpleasant interaction in the book; the balance was needed. And even between people who are often in conflict, there were moments of lightness and laughter. That, too, felt real.

    • Mary Ann Vadnais says:

      It’s so interesting to me, Liz, that many of these reviews and discussions are bracketing small collections of interest, and details, and moments with major story concerns. And you’re right, her small details are deeply evocative and do so much work, that it’s almost as if I am holding my breath the whole time because I’m waiting to see how they’ll fit together and make a story that’s as satisfying. It’s a maddening kind of combination of precision and extremely broad strokes. For example, I normally have a lot to say about the virtuous small town trope in romance, but here I found it so crudely presented that I can’t forward a cohesive argument about how the book is an example. Yet, there are particular small town details that have incredible depth, like that the Chinese diner has a lasagna night; and terrific NYC details like the intimacy and familiarity of Daniel’s favorite noodle joint. It’s as if this book has so many joins between so many pieces that there is no way for it to hold an overall shape.

      • Liz Mc2 says:

        I wonder if, in a way, Essex is the opposite of someone like Kristen Ashley. Ashley has figured out romance storytelling that resonates with a lot of readers, but has work to do on other aspects of writing craft. And Essex is a writer who is still figuring out how to be a romance storyteller. The thing about the broad brush strokes: reading it, I felt as if she had this great set-up and then either didn’t quite know what to do with it or felt she had to cram it into a rather unsubtle idea of “romance genre” frameworks (small town good, maternal feelings good, self-sacrifice good, hot sex good, etc).

        If she can figure out how to tell a romance story that fits her voice and characters more naturally, she’ll write a book that’s an A read for me. This one started off B+ or better and veered almost into trainwreck at the end. But–and I hope this is not condescending sounding, it isn’t meant to be–it was like when I read a student’s first paper, and she tries something risky that doesn’t quite work so it’s a B-/C+, but I think, “I can’t wait to see what this person does next” and then I shed a tear as I read her A final paper in the course thinking “Yes, you got it! This is awesome!” Only in this case, I am not the teacher, just the hopeful reader.

  23. Mary Ann Vadnais says:

    Liz, the reason I will read her next book really is that moment on the side of the road when Chris pulls Tiffany close and inhales her, wants her, cooking oil and all. I couldn’t fail to return to a writer who can make such a strange and perfect fact of infatuation sing.

  24. kaetrin says:

    I really thought it was just me with the things being incomplete at the end. I have a major issue with things ambiguity so I often assume it’s me. I’m gratified that it wasn’t this time!

    The main romance-y feel to the book seemed to come from Daniel and Selena which is why I wanted more of them I guess, as Mary Ann said upthread.

  25. Ros says:

    Yes, yes, yes! I have finished it now and Liz, I’m completely with you. This just isn’t a romance novel that works as a romance for me. But the writing is great and I’m confident Essex will get there.

  26. Ruthie says:

    I am too overwhelmed by all the comments to process them! And this is probably what would happen to me at a real book club, too.

    But I don’t think I saw anyone saying this, so I’ll say this:

    I think Essex created a really interesting character here in Tiffany by making her someone with impaired self-awareness. She seems to have very little idea of how she *seems* in the world — what people once thought of her, what they think of her now. She is very bad at connecting to other people, as we see when some of her old high school acquaintances (inexplicably) try to make friends with her. I found Tiffany’s impaired self-awareness interesting, and fairly realistic for someone of her age and in her circumstances. But it didn’t evolve quickly enough, and this poisoned the resolution of the story. I think we were meant to understand, in the end, that Tiffany hated her job in New York and always had, but that she wasn’t aware of the extent of her hatred, because she’s so deeply in denial. We are supposed to understand that her life’s goals have always been sort of flat and untrue to herself, and to applaud her finally figuring that out. But (a) she does such a poor job of it — her brother essentially has to tell her — and (b) the reader has spent so much time seeing the world through Tiffany’s eyes, the final flip is not very satisfying, and it does seem as though Tiffany has to give up everything for an uncertain future in a town she hasn’t finished hating yet.

    It occurred to me at one point that this story really could have used *one* character who wasn’t completely flailing around. They all have so far to go — Tiffany, Chris, Daniel, the kid, the grandfather, the parents — it’s hard to trust they’re going to get there. I would have felt more at ease with the ending if one of the primaries had really solid life skills.

    That said, I liked reading the book, and I want to read more by Essex. I hope she does more Chinese-American stories, too, because she’s really good at it, and we need them.

  27. Ruthie says:

    Also, everything Liz says here:

    I wonder if, in a way, Essex is the opposite of someone like Kristen Ashley. Ashley has figured out romance storytelling that resonates with a lot of readers, but has work to do on other aspects of writing craft. And Essex is a writer who is still figuring out how to be a romance storyteller. The thing about the broad brush strokes: reading it, I felt as if she had this great set-up and then either didn’t quite know what to do with it or felt she had to cram it into a rather unsubtle idea of “romance genre” frameworks (small town good, maternal feelings good, self-sacrifice good, hot sex good, etc).

    If she can figure out how to tell a romance story that fits her voice and characters more naturally, she’ll write a book that’s an A read for me. This one started off B+ or better and veered almost into trainwreck at the end. But–and I hope this is not condescending sounding, it isn’t meant to be–it was like when I read a student’s first paper, and she tries something risky that doesn’t quite work so it’s a B-/C+, but I think, “I can’t wait to see what this person does next” and then I shed a tear as I read her A final paper in the course thinking “Yes, you got it! This is awesome!” Only in this case, I am not the teacher, just the hopeful reader.

    Yes. And I am sympathetic to Essex, because I fall on her end of the struggle as a writer, rather than the Kristen Ashley end. My native talents aren’t in story. She’ll figure it out. I’ll keep buying her books.

  28. Ruthie says:

    Oh, damn, okay, one more thing, and then I’ll go away:

    I think one problem with this book is that it lingers in some of the wrong places and doesn’t linger in the right ones. There are threads that could have been dropped, since they didn’t make it into the resolution: Tiffany’s art, the extent of her parents’ problems, the tour of town. But she ought to have lingered more over the happiest part of the romance, which gets done in summary: after the first set scene, she waves her wrist over days (or weeks) of Chris and Tiffany sneaking off to have sex and enjoy each other. Which isn’t to say that I needed seven sex scenes, but rather that when they finally reach a point of being ready for intimacy . . . she skips it. So the reader is left with nowhere to pause. We go straight from Chris and Tiffany struggling to get together to Chris and Tiffany struggling to stay together. I needed the pause, a nice long soak in their happiness, in order to believe they ought to stay together at all.

    She had too much story for her word count, in my opinion.

    • Mary Ann Vadnais says:

      You know, when other books have, as you put with so much erudition, “too much story for her word count” the default reader coping mechanism is to skim. This was something I found I could not do, even in places where I most definitely and desperately wanted to. Because, those small moments were snugged in there, just waiting, like quartz in mountain of stone, and I didn’t want to miss them.

      The thing is, I don’t mind it at all if my heart has to do work to take in the romance, or if the story has to really has to muscle to get the h/h there, but I don’t want my own brain to have to grind and process and ignore some things and glom onto others to get to a place where . . . . it’s fine.

  29. kaetrin says:

    I agree with Ruthie. There was too much story for the word count. And I really wanted to read the whole story because it was compelling and fascinating and good. But because there was too much, it felt to me like much was skipped over or missed out.

    Like most other commenters here though I do plan to read more of Essex’s work because I liked her voice and I hope she writes more Chinese American characters too.

    One thing I didn’t say very well in my review – it was only half formed in my mind til I saw it here – was that as much as the book was about cultural difference, because the conflicts in the two families were essentially the same, there was, alongside it, the idea that we are not so very different and I liked the juxtaposition.

  30. Allison Godfrey says:

    There have been many comments about the animosity between Tiffany’s parents. Their relationship reminded me of the marriages of a few of my friend’s parents, who are from Asia and Europe. I’m 44, and many of my friends have parents in their 60s-80s. Some of these couples married from expediency, to escape from poverty, home, or a war-time experience. Although these are not ‘arranged’ marriages per se, they were contracted for reasons other than a deep, abiding love or romantic considerations.
    One of my best friends comes from a Latvian Jewish background, and his parents married after surviving WWII as young children. From what I understood, he had a job as an engineer, and an apartment. The mother was training as a doctor, needed cheap accommodation, and it was suggested that they could pool their resources. But they never really meshed beyond a basic business arrangement. Even when they were successful in Canada, the father retreated into feigned deafness (until it became real), and the doctor mother took extra medical jobs to escape the house. The children have a difficult, sometimes loving, but always dutiful, and somewhat joyless relationship with the parents. I’ve interacted with the parents many times, and it is painful to watch.
    So long story short, I actually felt that Tiffany’s parents had a realistic relationship, if I posit an expedient arrangement, rather than a love match.
    I also empathized with Tiffany’s outsider status. I moved around often as a child, and being the new girl in school is often hard. Sometimes your own independence keeps out people who might befriend you, or accept you. Mind you, I’m a blonde Canadian, so my struggles were not exactly Tiffany’s troubles. But Essex evoked this feeling of isolation from people that I sometimes experienced.
    Like many other commenters, I wished the book had been longer. But I really liked the author’s voice. Maybe she should make the jump to ‘women’s fiction’, with a hint of romance.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I was thinking that romance often spells everything out for us. No emotion or action unmotivated by backstory. It often resolves everything too. While I would have liked to at least know Tiffany’s attitude to her family at the end, in other ways I appreciated the openness and inexplicability of her parents’ relationship.

  31. I agree wholeheartedly with Kaetrin and Ruthie. Even while reading it, there were points where I was thinking “No, wait! Go back! I wanted to read that!”

    I was disappointed that after that lovely scene by the water where Chris and Tiffany consummate the relationship, the development of that was glossed over. I wanted to read all about their furtive meetings in the barn or the tack room as they hide from their families and discover each other.

    I would read Daniel’s book too. They were a wonderful couple.

    There was so much right in this book that I found it pretty easy to overlook the flaws. I will definitely read Essex again.

  32. Thanks for linking to my review, Liz, even though I wasn’t part of the book club discussion! Being off Twitter and driving thousands of miles during my winter “vacation” has severely limited my online participation and reading time. If I hadn’t committed to this book a month ago I’m not sure I would have managed the review.

    What a great discussion. I just wanted to contributed a couple of points: first, as a regular reader of the SuperRomance line (one or two a month and often more), I’ve noticed in the last few months that the stories have been less “romantic,” in the sense that they spend a lot more time on the individual characters’ stories. As a result, you don’t get the same kind of slow, enjoyable development of the relationship that I’m used to in older Supers. In addition, the backstories have been kind of depressing, so that combined with less romance makes them less satisfactory for me. I still like the line a lot and will keep reading, but I’ve had fewer keepers apart from my autobuy authors.

    Second, I bought the engineer-to-restaurant-owner decision without trouble. It’s only in the last decade that an Asian engineering degree has the same currency in the US that a domestic one does, and engineering as a degree covers a wide variety of training (from glorified construction work to specialized, highly-sought-after skills). Asian engineers were frequently forced into lower-paying positions and advancement was curtailed by stereotypes and language issues. Family businesses offer faster capital accumulation (because you use unpaid or low-paid family labor). There’s a reason so many Asians opened restaurants, and it’s not because they were all chefs in the home countries.

    • Sunita – good point. I should have adjusted for the time shift. Currently in S area of engineering, out of 30 interviews 10 will be from India, 10 will be Chinese, 3 will be Middle Eastern and the remaining 7 will be an assortment of American born applicants. In the 80’s that was radically different. So while I was reading it seemed ridiculous, but that didn’t account for the dramatic shift in engineering education since the time the Cheungs would have relocated.

  33. I loved this book. Rich characters, rich plot, and rich writing–something most don’t expect to find in category romances these days.

    The mostly rich characterization was what kept me glued to the book because boy, Tiffany was–is–me (I winced many times because she hit too close to the bone *g*)! The interpersonal relationships between siblings, children and parents, high school/college friends, and lovers, were incredibly real and realistic, and many times I felt like I was right there with everyone–they weren’t simply characters in a book.

    I also enjoyed the non-romancey trajectory of the plot. Perhaps my reading tastes have morphed, but I get a little impatient and bored when I read a 300-400 page book where everything is solely about the romance, or to be more precise, when the characterization of the H/H is 100% entwined with the romance plot. It was refreshing to read about Chris and Tiffany grappling with their own personal lives in tandem with the growth of their romantic relationship because that’s how it is in real life. On a side-note, it was an interesting touch to see Chris press for Tiffany to include him in her career decisions when they’re at the hospital–I expected him to blow up at her for going to the job interview.

    Now I did roll my eyes over Archie Bunker…I mean William Jamieson’s sudden conversion to The Light of anti-racism, but hey, at least the racism was there in the book and written in a realistic manner. The stench of Stars Hollowism did wrinkle my nose, but it is a genre convention that is here to stay. Daniel and Selena were underused, but their story padded out the book nicely enough, and provided a good foil to Chris/Tiffany. All in all, a great start to my 2013 reading challenge, and I’ll probably look into more SuperRomances.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Evangeline, I liked that everything didn’t have to tie into the romance too. Falling in love wouldn’t solve every problem in their lives, but you could see how they could help, support, and understand each other. I just wanted to see more of the falling in love. Because that was the least real part of the book, as it was.

  34. Simon yawned so widely she could see the bright orange remains of some Cheetos lodged in his molars.

    The tension in the kitchen could have sliced a ripe tomato.

    His limbs were like lead, and the contents of his stomach floated freely inside his chest cavity like blobs of oil in a lava lamp.

    I did a lot of highlighting while reading this book – Essex has a great eye for detail, and she knows how to turn a phrase.

    I had most of the same problems others have enumerated, though, first and foremost a lack of engagement in the primary romance. I just never quite got a sense of why she was the woman for him, and he the man for her, and thus I never felt any sense of urgency about their getting together.

    And I, too, wish Daniel and Selena had gotten their own book. I would have liked to read her POV; also I didn’t want her to accept that marriage proposal so quickly! I wanted to see a little more stabilization of their relationship + some discussion of how their future was actually going to work out. Because on paper, showing up drunk to her apartment, then ducking out without saying goodbye, then dropping out of sight altogether, then showing up again at 3 a.m. to announce that he’d taken a low-level restaurant job and wanted to marry her, just does not look propitious. In my possibly too-stolid opinion.

    My favorite parts of the book were anything involving Simon. That last image of the three Jamiesons sitting around arguing about King Lear (“Uh, spoiler alert, Grandpa”) just made me smile so hard.

    • Gah, correction; Daniel didn’t show up to Selena’s at 3 a.m. He texted Tiffany at 3 a.m. to tell her where he was. Still, he showed up pretty late and without calling first. Not okay.

  35. Liz Mc2 says:

    Maybe someone who has been reading SuperRomance longer than I have can weigh in on this, but I’m wondering how long they had the shorter word count before they went back to 85,000 recently.

    I’m thinking about the fact that their editors as well as authors may be figuring out how to use the longer word count to best advantage. (Sunita is not the only reader who has mentioned that recent Supers seem less romantic, and a number of people have commented on the “too much plot for the length” problem here). Maybe this will sort itself out. This is one of my favorite Harlequin lines for its meatier and more realistic stories, but I don’t want to see it turn into an “issue of the month” women’s-fictiony kind of line. One thing I loved about this book was that it did not turn any of what the characters were dealing with into “issues.” That is, yes they have to deal with the cross-generational culture clash and racism but it never has a “message” about those things; they are just part of the characters’ lives.

  36. @Liz: If I’m reading the info correctly, the shorter wordcounts were around for a quite a few years. I found an Absolute Write thread dated 2005 that announces the changes. I didn’t start reading Supers until after that, so for me that was the norm. It’s worth noting that pre-2005 books with lots of dialogue would have been shorter anyway, if they were going by the Courier 12 per page method of counting, where each page is assumed to contain 250 words. Now they count actual words, so there is more consistency across authors and books.

    A number of people have commented on their dissatisfaction with the secondary storyline in this book, in terms of it feeling underdeveloped, and I agree. But it’s tough to get a full-blown secondary romance in. Consider Fiona Lowe’s Boomerang Bride, which won a RITA. When I reviewed it last year I described it as similar to a Super in terms of topics, characterization, etc. and it has a terrific secondary romance. But it’s 93k words, and Fiona is a skilled, veteran author who has been dealing with the (shorter) Medical word count for a while. I think she did a great job, but she had 10k more words and more experience.

    As for the Issue and women’s fiction-y aspects, I think that’s part of the Super package. They’ve always tended toward that (see SuperWendy’s H&H post on HSRs a while back), but now I think we are seeing a sharper focus.

  37. I’m super late to the party, but I wanted to put my two cents to a rich discussion that probably doesn’t need it 😉

    One of the things I really liked about the book is how the author portrays that cultural no-man’s-land that Tiffany was living in by being raised in America by Chinese parents that kept their culture an essential part of their lives. She didn’t fully identify with her parents, but she didn’t identify with the American kids either. The small town setting worked well to illustrate it and drive the point home, because they were the only outsiders, so the sense of ostracism was enhanced by the it, and in that respect, I thought the small town was a clever choice. I wish this would have been further explored.

    Tiffany was essentially a selfish person too preoccupied with her own issues to even see how her brother’s situation mirrored hers. And it was somewhat obvious that her dream wasn’t becoming an editor, but leaving the town. But I never felt like realizing this was part of her journey. Instead, we’re led to believe that her job was everything to her, so when the ending happens, it negates everything else going on in the book, and it sends a bunch of wrong messages, one of which being that small towns are better than big cities. But I didn’t get the impression this was one of those romances trying to sell small-town living as the best choice one can make (the town wasn’t really that idyllic). The author just did a poor job at conveying her message, and chose the awful predictable ending where the heroine sacrifices her dream in order to be with the hero.

    The grandfather also bothered me a lot, because someone as clueless and racist doesn’t change so easily. Why not leave him cruel? The happy ending doesn’t demand everyone to change and be good and happy, right? It would have been more realistic to just leave him as he was.

    As most of you have said, I thought the romance was awkward and underdeveloped. And overall, I feel like the right elements were there, the intention and idea were fantastic, but the execution was lacking. The more I think about it, the more issues I find, but I’m glad I read it and I hope that this means that we’ll be seeing more diverse characters in the genre.

    Speaking as someone who likes her stories with a heavy dose of doom and gloom, I love the new Supers. But I agree that some of the stories perhaps use characters so damaged that fixing them takes time and the romance ends up being overwhelmed by it. I know that tying the romance to the individual character arcs is easier said than done, but I guess that’s the answer. However, I’m quite happy with the SR line, and I’m curious to see what the longer word count brings to the table (judging by what I’ve read so far, it’s mostly longer secondary storylines that either serve as sequel-bait, or get resolved within the book, none of which work, if you ask me).

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Good point about the small town setting. You’d think in college Tiffany would have met a ton of people with a similar history/family background, and have come to terms with that more.

      I agree that her “dream job” never really matched her dreams (who wants to be 32 and still scrambling for assistant jobs?), I just thought a shift in dreams needed to be much more part of the plot. I wanted her to still be ambitious in new ways that still felt like her, but could include Chris, and I didn’t feel that.

      • kaetrin says:

        @Brie & Liz I felt like Tiffany could maybe have spent a few days a week in the city and commuted for a little while until her boss felt comfortable with her working remotely. Or something. Or taking up a freelance editing role which she could do from the farm. I didn’t think her character would just come back to town with no plan. She wasn’t set up to be a “go with the flow” kind of girl. (I relate to this!)

        Also, I’ve been thinking about William’s miracle turnaround. I didn’t really believe it, but I think it was necessary because why on earth would Tiffany LIVE with the irascible racist? There’s just no way. So he had to change his ways in order for there to be an HEA unless Chris gave up the farm and moved to the city. (which, sure while it would have been validating for Tiffany, I couldn’t honestly see him doing. He would have been miserable and that would have threatened the relationship in time. But, if Tiffany isn’t happy in her job (whatever it is) in Everville, then the same thing might happen. I didn’t have enough information at the end to know if this was likely or not.

  38. I had guests all week this week and therefore couldn’t read the book in time for the book club, but I wanted to say how much I enjoyed it, even as someone who hasn’t read the book yet (I have it on my kindle). I hope there is another book club type discussion here in the future, because this one was so rich and thoughtful. Thanks to everyone who participated and to Liz for hosting it.

  39. Ros says:

    @Kaetrin, I was expecting William to end up in a house of his own. Maybe in town somewhere he could be a bit more independent and have Sunny bring him food every so often.

    • kaetrin says:

      @Ros I can’t say I would be overjoyed to move in with the father in law immediately after the wedding – not my thing. But it seemed that Chris was going to build them a cabin on the farm – still waaay to close to William if you ask me. 🙂

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