Best Review Ever

It’s December, which means it’s time for everyone with an internet connection to post their Best Of the Year lists.  I’ve been fortunate enough to see A GOOD AMERICAN crop up on quite a few of these.  (This one from Booklist was especially pleasing, if only because of the author who came immediately below me.)  I was also especially pleased to appear on this list by Amanda from the always smart and hilarious blog Dead White Guys, as I’ve never had my book reviewed in Haiku form before.

But actually the most pleasing encomium I’ve received lately was from an entirely unexpected source.  The children were with their mother last Friday and so, as occasionally happens when I am not constrained by the dietary peccadilloes of small people, I decided to treat myself to some spicy Chinese food.  Having spent the entire day being a lawyer in a town called Clinton, I felt I had earned it.

(A brief digression.  Missouri has some of the best town names ever.  There is a place west of the capital, Jefferson City, called Bland.  It is on the way to another town called Gerald.  But on Friday, as I was driving to Clinton, I saw a sign to a town called, I shit you not, Tightwad.  For realz.  Anyway.)

So, yeah.  Chinese food.  The place I tend to go for my take-out is a well-known restaurant south of town called Peking.  The lady who owns the place is quite a character.  She presides over the dining room in a wonderful, slightly eccentric way, bellowing down the telephone at people calling in with orders and chatting with customers while they eat.  I’ve been going there for years, and while this lady always recognizes me, I never had any clue that she knew who I was.  At least, until now.  On Friday I walked through the door, and she took one look at me and said, “I read your book!”

My response to this news, whenever I hear it, is usually a confusing conflagration of pleasure and apprehension.  I’m always delighted to learn of new readers, of course, but then I never know what’s coming next.  What came next, in this instance, did not bode well.

“I read it by accident,” she told me.

“By accident?” I said anxiously.

She nodded.  “I was in the bookshop and I picked it up.  I liked the title.  Then I looked at the author photo and saw it was you.  I recognized you.  So I bought it.”

This is something they don’t tell you on How-to-Market-Your-Novel websites: eat more Chinese food.

“And so what did you think?” I asked.

Just then, of course, the telephone rang and I had to wait while she took an order for Crab Rangoon and General Tso’s Chicken.

“I liked it,” she said when she put the phone back down.  “I liked the family’s work ethic.  That’s like us, you know.  You got that just right.”

And only then did it occur to me: I was speaking to the matriarch of an immigrant family who had come to mid-Missouri and opened a successful restaurant.  And I realized that I couldn’t ever really hope for higher praise.  She’s Jette.  There’s all the difference in the world between telling stories and actually living those same stories.  In the end, I was just making stuff up – but this lady had actually lived it.  That she approved of what I had done meant the world to me.

A few minutes later, when my food was ready, she brandished the brown paper bag at me and said: “Order for Alex.”  I beamed.  After nine years, she finally knows my name.

Comments 4

  1. What an charming story, and I agree, what an amazing review. The most interesting part is that you don’t mention that she let you have your food for free. I’m imagining her thinking–“we’re just two working people, paying for one another’s products.” Very much like Jette. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Yep, that’s the highest praise you can get right there! It sums up what I loved about the book: it’s timeless and something so many can relate to. My great grandfather came over from Italy and opened a butcher shop/grocer in Chicago. I grew up around so many different people, and many of their parents ran restaurants. Now living in Texas, I’ve worked with so many people from Mexico. Hearing their stories, it’s like sitting at the dining room table with my great grandmother as she told me stories about coming over from Sicily and how hard everybody worked to make something not so much for them, but for future generations.

    It’s a pretty universal thing in America; most people I know are only a few generations from someplace else, and A Good American captured that and so much more so well.

  3. What a great story, Alex! A true indicator of a story well-told. Here’s an odd aside I learned doing some genealogy work in recent years.

    My great grandfather was a coal miner in Scotland (read “poor”). When he came to America, as his family was just getting its foothold in central Illinois–four daughters, bless them!–he got a yearning to return to Scotland to visit his mother before she passed away.

    He sold their house and furnishings to pay for the trip to take himself, his pregnant wife, and their young daughter with them. When his mother found out, she was infuriated! Needless to say the trip wasn’t as pleasant as he had hoped.

    My grandmother was born on the boat during the return trip, at least according to family legend.

    The family finally recovered by the time his youngest was in high school, when they bought a modest house again.

    I suppose in a country that is made up of immigrants, there are a lot of these stories.

  4. I just finished A Good American. I loved the story line and the characters came alive in your book. I am an avid reader and read all sorts of books. I really enjoyed this one. I hated to put it down and wished it would go on and on. You are a very good writer. I will check my local library to see if it has any of your other books. I have children older than you and I just thought you would like to know that your work appeals even to older folks. I also write but not as good as you do.

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