Divergent Vietnamese-American sisters grapple with their upbringing, their present circumstances and their shortcomings.
Debut novelist Nguyen integrates many of the themes found in her immigration memoir (Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, 2007), while solidly demonstrating a flair for fictional composition. The book centers on quarrelsome siblings Van and Linny, who find themselves at emotional and cultural crossroads as the first generation of their family to be raised in America. Not surprisingly, their personal dilemmas begin at home. Van, a competent and empathetic immigration attorney, has been abruptly abandoned by her preening, self-possessed husband Miles. This brings all her doubts about herself rocketing to the surface: “No matter what she wore or how good she might feel about herself, the sight of a pulled-together tall woman could make Van feel like a short little stump.” Linny has embraced the American way, barely acknowledging her Vietnamese origins. She lives a carefree but rootless life in Chicago, organizing prepared dinners for suburban customers and sleeping with a married man whose feelings toward her are suspect. Adding to the sisters’ growing uncertainties is an unwelcome homecoming: Van and Linny are called back to Grand Rapids to help celebrate their father’s recent U.S. citizenship. The family’s ambitious patriarch is Dinh Luong, a widower and amateur inventor whose most useful invention, a “Luong Arm” designed to extend the reach of short people, sharpens his daughters’ sense of inadequacy. As the sisters help their father prepare for a reality show called “Tomorrow’s Great Inventor,” they find themselves learning significantly more about themselves, their heritage and the art of self-invention. Nguyen sometimes relies too heavily on a few underlying motifs, but her candid storytelling style more than makes up for this deficit.
A compassionate family drama that attacks emotional and generational unrest with an optimistic thesis—life goes on.