“A horned lark perched on the concrete balcony outside my window, framed against the colorful paifang of Montreal’s Chinatown.” So begins Filipino-Chinese author Roselle Lim’s debut novel, Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck & Fortune, out in June.
The average reader may be swept away by the language and beautiful imagery of the first page of Lim’s novel, without a thought as to how much time, effort, and care went into crafting that first sentence. “The first line, to me, is extremely important. It needs to convey the voice, the tone, and the footing of the new book,” Lim said. “It took me until about the third round of revisions to get the line just right for Natalie Tan.” Lim considers the first line of a novel the entry point for a journey, one that sets the reader’s expectations for the entire novel moving forward.
Lim’s novel follows the story of Natalie Tan, a chef whose chosen career disappointed her mother, causing Natalie to leave home and travel the world. When her mother dies, Natalie journeys back to San Francisco’s Chinatown after seven years away, where she learns more about her mother and the grandmother she never knew, gets to know her neighbors, reopens her grandmother’s restaurant, and falls in love along the way.
When Lim set out to tell this story, she knew it would contain elements of magical realism. “I see magic as a part of everyday life. When I’m walking around, what I see fills me with wonder on a daily basis,” Lim said. “So when I wanted to write this novel, I wanted to have that point of view incorporated.” Magical elements are everywhere a reader turns in this book: recipes that cause literal fireworks to go off above a character’s head, a moment of anger in which the narrator splinters a stool into pieces, and a couple whose relationship mends with gold filling in the cracks between them. “In Chinese culture, there’s a lot of superstition and folklore, and magic is a great way to express that,” said Lim.
Writing the magical story elements doesn’t always work quite right on the first attempt. It’s about creating balance and executing the imagery in an appropriate way. “There’s a purpose to each instance of magic that happens,” Lim told Spine. One scene in which it worked well: the repair and strengthening of a marriage that had broken down. Other times, something seemed off. Readers will get to know the sweet cat, Meimei. "In the first draft, the cat talked!” Lim said. “I took the cat out because I thought it might be polarizing to have a talking cat. Originally, I removed her completely from one draft, but I added her back in a later draft.” It’s all about finding balance and determining what feels right.
Choosing where magical realism would be a purposeful addition to the story wasn’t the only decision Lim had to make along the way. She also had to select music and recipes, added to make the story even richer.
Lim’s food selections drew heavily from personal experience. “They were my favorite foods that my dad made, all the recipes I’d request him to make growing up.” Lim said that she set a menu before she wrote the book, or more often, before she wrote a chapter. “Each dish is chosen in a way that reflects what is happening.” The setting was another key factor in selecting the right recipes for the book. Lim had to consider what ingredients were readily available in San Francisco, where the novel is set. Natalie cooks Dungeness crabs at one point, which were chosen specifically because they’d be easy for Natalie to find in San Francisco, unlike the blue crabs more readily accessible on the east coast.
In addition to all the recipes and delicious food, music features prominently in the novel. Natalie is always listening to something while she cooks, often classical music. “Classical music is timeless; Miranda [Natalie’s mother] and Natalie live in this untouched, unchanging box of an apartment [when Natalie is growing up] because of Miranda’s agoraphobia, so opera and classical music were the perfect way to express this,” Lim explained. Music is used purposefully, just like the recipe selections throughout the novel. Furthermore, music is a big part of Lim’s writing process. “I have to have a playlist on all the time,” she said. “I’ll make playlists for each phase of writing, whether it’s revising or starting a brand-new novel.” You can catch the playlist for Natalie Tan here.
Lim is currently writing her second novel while simultaneously working on craft projects like sewing, stickering, and woodburning as a way to keep her anxiety about the book release at bay. When she thinks of the upcoming book release, Lim said, “I could choose to be terrified or I could choose to be exhilarated — it’s the same feeling, just a different perspective on the emotion.”
Emily Hessney Lynch is a freelance writer and social media strategist. She’s an avid reader, a dog mom, and a coffee enthusiast.