Coffee and Kung Fu
by Karen Brichoux
(New American Library, $12.95, PG-13) ISBN 0-451-20902-8
  As the song says, “you’ve got to have a gimmick,” and Coffee and Kung Fu distinguishes itself from the rest of the Chick Lit crowd by using an intriguing one. Heroine Nicci Bradford may be stuck in a dead-end job in the big city and confused about love like so many of her literary equivalents, but she has a unique resource: the wisdom of Kung Fu movies. As Nicci tries to make her life conform to the values of Jackie Chan, the reader is treated to a humorous but thoughtful coming of age story.  

Nicci may be a Missionary’s Kid who was raised in the Philippines, but at age 26 she just wants to be like everyone else. A copy editor for a Boston graphics and design firm, she dates infrequently and has few friends but doesn’t consider herself lonely. Like her Kung Fu idols, she is solitary but strong. When Nicci falls into a relationship with Rob Cole, one of the firm’s new clients, she wonders why she isn’t happier. Rob is handsome, sexy, attentive and wealthy, but she doesn’t feel like they really connect. In fact, she has more meaningful conversations with the man behind the counter at her favorite coffee shop, even though she doesn’t know his real name.

Can Jackie Chan’s lessons of loyalty, courage and friendship lead Nicci in the right direction or are they irrelevant in 21st century America? As Nicci struggles with work, family and love, she finally realizes that strength doesn’t always mean going it alone. Sometimes being strong means admitting you need someone to share the burden.  

Nicci’s childhood experiences in the Far East and her respect for its culture set her apart from most Chick Lit heroines. The novel’s frequent references to Kung Fu movies provide a distinctive theme and structure. But even without those differences, Coffee and Kung Fu would be a success because of debut author Karen Brichoux’s skilled writing style that strikes the right balance between humor and poignancy. She accurately portrays Nicci’s struggle to determine how much she is willing to compromise in love and in work, and the secondary characters provide valuable lessons on both sides of the coin. An understated but extremely tender romance gives the novel a hopeful feel despite the touches of urban twenty-something cynicism, and as in all good Kung Fu movies, there is a devastating loss from which Nicci emerges sadder but wiser.  

At least part of Coffee and Kung Fu is autobiographical – like her heroine, Brichoux also grew up in the Philippines and is a devotee of Kung Fu movies. I always wonder about debut authors whose first efforts are obviously based on their own lives – what comes next? Can Brichoux tell a different story in her sophomore effort or has she said it all? I’ll have to wait to find out the answer but for now, I’ll just enjoy her memorable first novel. Whether Kung Fu flicks are your cup of latte or not, if you have ever questioned how to live a meaningful life, you’ll identify with and cheer on Nicci Bradford.  

--Susan Scribner

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