The Crossroads Diner is like nothing Eric Fong has ever seen. In fact, it truly is nothing he has seen before. A mere minute ago, Eric would have sworn the place wasn’t there and yet, somehow, now it is. Somewhere in the middle of Chinatown in New York City, there is inexplicably before him a building with no windows and only one door, a bamboo-sided building that is somehow larger on the inside than it seems and filled with a crowd of people who stare at Eric like he’s something marvelous or dangerous. If it weren’t for the cute young man behind the bar, Eric might not have stayed, and would have missed meeting the love of his life.
Benjamin Wen is a mere one year away from finishing his thousand-year service to Persephone, goddess of the underworld. It’s his job to help souls cross over, to help them come to some peace before the grim reapers take them to the ferry. It’s not an easy job, but he’s good at it, and looking forward to redeeming himself and earning his reincarnation, his chance at a new life. But now there are two obstacles in his way: the demons of his past, and the man who wants to make Benjamin his future.
Sixteen hundred years ago, Ben was a young Chinese man born to a woman cast aside by her husband for a younger, wealthier wife. Poor and alone, they only had each other, until a group of young men and women who bullied Ben for being gay, tortured him, and eventually beat him to death, leaving him to die alone in an abandoned barn. It’s been over a thousand years, but Ben still holds on to the hate, the rage, and the pain of his final moments. He has not forgotten and he does not forgive.
Eric is estranged from his family who want him to stop being gay, to marry and have children like his siblings. His father won’t talk to him, his mother harangues him, and his siblings might as well not exist. It’s a lonely life, but Eric has channeled all of his passion and energy into his restaurant. But when he has a meal at the Crossroads Diner, for the first time in a long time, Eric tastes love. Soup and dumplings cooked just like his grandmother made them, tea sweetened with just enough honey. It brings back emotions he thought he’d lost, and brings him closer to Ben.
To be quite honest, this book really didn’t work for me in any way, shape, or form. While Ben is a nice change from the saintly, perfect main character, one who revels in his own righteous rage, it felt so orchestrated, so heavy-handed that I never felt the sympathy I should have felt for him. Perhaps it’s because there’s so much telling and almost no showing. So much point-by-point writing as we see a cup filled, set down, lifted, and held in a character’s hands, rather than a character having a cup of tea. Or being told a character is angry and yet their words are a friendly hello, how are you? and their actions show no sign of any anger, irritation, or strong emotion.
The story goes, villain by villain, as we are introduced to the wafer-thin characters who tormented Ben as he gets to get a last word in and kick them to hell. But rather than feeling cathartic, it feels … flat. I felt as though each villain was more of a paper doll than a person, so unreal and cliche that, just as their lives were nothing, so was everything else about them. And Ben’s anger, while justified, was either at 1 or 10, with no build up and no justification. These dying souls have no idea why Ben is angry at them, no idea what they did to deserve his wrath. Some were jerks, but some were just sad, miserable people now being told they’re going to hell and the person in front of them is reveling in it.
If this is a story about forgiveness, I didn’t see any. If it’s a story about healing, I didn’t see that, either. And as a romance, it also didn’t work for me. Eric, on his first visit, comments on the rent prices in New York and from that one comment feels an instant connection. At his second visit, when Ben has only served him porridge and tea, Eric thinks:
Benjamin made him feel comfortable, but he wasn’t sure if they were at that stage in their relationship where they could chat about something as personal as his strained relationship with his family and his sexuality.
Nothing was earned, in this book. Nothing carried any weight or had any moment to it. The characters’ words and actions were rarely in accordance; a character would think they were afraid or confused, but their words were chipper and almost banal. On being told the truth behind Benjamin’s diner, Eric … doesn’t seem to care. He’s fine with it, except a token “gosh” and then the story moves on.
It might just have been me, but I had no connection to the paper thin world or interest in the equally thin characters. Nothing about this book held my attention and I found myself drifting away to other books and entertainments and having to remind myself to come back to this one again and again. That disjointed reading probably didn’t help with either my immersion or lack of interest. Whatever the case, I don’t recommend this book. It is too much filler and too little of anything else.