Off the Menu

Off the Menu

by Christine Son

I’m Kim Alexander and this is Fiction Nation. The book is Off the Menu by Christine Son.

What do parents want? Only the best for their children, a better life than they had, just to see their kids apply themselves, that their children should have a better class of friends than the hoods they hang around with, do your homework more than twice a year, if you have to get a tattoo don’t tell us, and of course, just don’t come home in a police car. Oh, and marry a doctor, which has been replaced with become a doctor, preferably a dermatologist; they don’t get calls in the middle of the night.

Parents want a lot, and have to put up with a lot of eye rolling and whining about pressure. But once you make the transition from rotten kid to long-suffering parent, it really makes you want to call home and apologize.

So that’s the middle class suburban experience, the only one I can honestly speak for, but what if you add the immigrant experience? Do the parents of first-generation American children want exactly the same? Or do they want more? If your culture demands a level of respect towards your parents that your friends don’t share, how do you complain and roll your eyes? Or do something behind their back? Or disappoint them?

In Christine Son’s Off the Menu, three friends since high school are all successful and accomplished, but live in fear of letting their parents down.  And when your family has sacrificed everything — literally — including leaving their home behind to make sure you get the best possible education and the best chance in life, I think I’d also be a little leery of telling them I had my own ideas about how to live.  They are on the surface Asian- American super-achievers: Hercules is a restaurant-owning chef, Audrey has just finished her thesis, and Whitney is a rising star at her law firm. Of course, what their parents don’t know — and what they keep secret from each other — is how bitterly unhappy and unfulfilled they are. Hercules can’t talk to her father, who resolutely refuses to assimilate; Whitney only wants to be a singer — her mother hilariously tells her to avoid nightclubs as places of terrible dangerl and trust-fund baby Audrey is about to marry a man *gasp* with no money.  Off the Menu is Christine Son’s debut novel, and the slight fairy-tale flavor takes on more depth through her clear-eyed approach to the inner life of the Asian-American family. Not that it’s news that respect is demanded, sacrifice is expected, and assimilation is difficult, but in this book there is also great love and a willingness to accept change, both from the families and from the women themselves. The way these women deal with their problems and follow their dreams is funny, sometimes sad, and reflects the author’s affection for her characters. I got the idea that Christine felt a little maternal towards her characters and tried to have only the best things happen to them.  A life of mediocrity is simply not in the cards for any of these women, and maybe that answers my original question: what do parents — any parents anywhere in the world — want for their children? Extraordinary lives.

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