The first chapter of Miss Chopsticks is so funny and heartwarming that I fully expected to fall in love with this book. While that didn’t quite happen, it was certainly an engaging and enlightening read.
The blurb is written as if this were a book about three sisters struggling against patriarchy, perhaps because that’s what western readers expect from books about Chinese women, but while the book touches on gender issues, that’s not its focus. Rather, this is a book about three sisters from the countryside who move to Nanjing, are fortunate enough to get good jobs, and discover talents they didn’t know they had, while working to adapt to life in the big city. (This is a tall order; one character opines that the countryside is 500 years behind the cities.) Thematically, then, it's mostly about the rapid pace of change in 21st century China and about the lives of migrant workers there.
It’s quite a positive, hopeful book, with a plot that follows the sisters through their daily lives; even without a lot of external conflict, though, it’s still quite engaging. And it’s nice to read something about China that isn’t tragic! The characters are fairly well-drawn and I learned a good deal about modern China. The translation is also excellent; it manages to retain some humor and to insert explanations where necessary without being pedantic. In fact, it feels natural enough that one might almost think the book had been written in English (although some of its conventions, like the omniscient point-of-view, are rarely seen in English-language novels these days).
After such a positive book, though, the Afterword (where the author relates what she knows about the subsequent lives of the three real-life girls) was a downer. If that information was going to be included in the book, I think I’d have preferred it to be dealt with in the actual narrative.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book, but it has enough substance to it to be more than just a light read. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for an engaging portrait of modern China.