In this multigenerational novel of the Vietnamese diasporas, a family is split between France and America, thanks to the secrets of their patriarch.
The novel opens in contemporary Vietnam, where Cherry Truong is visiting her wayward brother Lum. Cherry is trying to convince him to return home to Los Angeles (where he was a disappointment to the expectations of their parents), but Vietnam has transformed him—now Lum has a prosperous future in real-estate development and a girlfriend with a baby on the way. The irony of his Vietnamese success brings the novel back to the Truong family’s escape in the ’70s. Hung and Hoa Truong pay passage for their family (two sons, three daughters-in-law and a couple of grandchildren) for the dangerous boat ride to a refugee camp in Malaysia. After years of waiting, they finally find sponsorship from a wealthy French family and join their eldest son Yen, now a lawyer, in Paris. All but youngest son Sanh, who with his wife immigrates to America. The family’s split branches—Cherry and Lum grow up in Southern California and their cousins in Paris—offer a peak into the ubiquitous nature of the immigrant experience, however Phan’s telling of the two stories becomes a patchwork of ideas. Much of the novel involves the downtrodden Hoa (her husband Hung is a tyrant) and follows her from the camps to their new life in Paris, a cold world where they must remain in perpetual gratitude to the haughty Bourdains. In California Cherry and Lum play outside their mother’s beauty salon, while Grandmother Vo becomes the neighborhood moneylender. Interspersed are letters, from Hung to his mistress (the secret source of all the family’s problems) or from Grandmother Vo to her daughter, but instead of adding layers to the family history, the letters and fractured chronology does more than symbolize the fractured Truong family—it splinters the novel so that no one character or plotline becomes essential, least of all the title character’s.
Phan’s family saga has many riches, but it lacks the clear focus to become a standout debut.