The complex experience of cultural assimilation is explored in achingly personal terms in this dour successor to the Asian-American (now Texas resident) author’s debut novel, Grass Roof, Tin Roof (2003).
Its four thematically related long stories all focus on disoriented women desperate to connect with spouses, lovers, family members or territories from which they no longer believe they’ve moved on. “Mary” is an Asian-American film student at a California college, blocked from artistic or emotional maturity by memories of an almost-boyfriend who never cared for her as much as she cared for him, and the father reported drowned when her family escaped from Vietnam, as “boat people.” “Walruses” fashions creepy intermittent drama from the story of a young cocktail waitress and would-be musician (Darcy) continually harassed by the naked stranger who keeps breaking into her apartment. “Neighbors” is a road story, featuring the Vietnamese wife of an American businessman, as she cruises the highways with her young daughter, sinking deeper into introspection and isolation as she scans horizons, looking for an ever-receding “new life.” And in “Husband, Wife…”—which echoes rather too closely the rhetorical texture of “Neighbors”—Sage, a rootless part-Vietnamese singer and songwriter, woolgathers during a car trip with her four-year-old son, over an inconvenient attraction to the boy’s preschool teacher. They’re all vagabonds, even when they seem settled and employed and, to one degree or another, centered, in these nevertheless loose and baggy stories. Strom can write efficiently and movingly about how inconsequential quotidian objects or experiences can rule our moods, and shows an occasional flair for piercing metaphor (e.g., “Mary” climaxes with a sharply phrased faux-biblical parable). But her characters, despite their surface exoticism, are generic, and their inner torments grow increasingly redundant and unconvincing.
Were these stories actually written earlier than Strom’s affecting first novel? They feel like apprentice work.