Trying a bit too hard for a broad-sweeping majesty, Nguyen’s first fiction works best when confined to the more intimate...



A fablelike tale set in turn-of-the-century Vietnam offers intrigue, revenge, a treasure map, and undying love, in a sprawling confection from memoirist Nguyen (The Unwanted, 2000).

At seven, Dan Nguyen (loosely based on the author’s grandfather) becomes married to Ven, twenty years his senior, poor, illiterate, and essentially sold into marriage-cum-nannyhood to care for her young husband. Though first wife to the heir of the Nguyen fortune, Ven finds herself serving, as tradition dictates, Dan’s three mothers and working in the rice fields. When Dan’s father and his first two wives are beheaded for treason, Ven hatches a plan of revenge that will allow her young husband to regain the family name and fortune. The death of Master Nguyen was the plot of the greedy town magistrate, who hopes to locate the Nguyen buried treasure—half of the map showing its location was tattooed on Master Nguyen’s back. As the evil magistrate searches for the other half, wrongly told it’s tattooed on young Dan’s back, Ven decides the safest place to hide him is in the magistrate’s own house. She sells him, and he becomes the slave/companion of the magistrate’s granddaughter, Tai May. The two grow up, they fall in love, and Dan loses all interest in exacting revenge on Tai May’s family. When the lovers are separated, Dan flees to the capital, where he becomes the royal embroiderer. From there, the tale wanders down many paths, giving a broader picture but weakening the reader’s attachment to Dan and Tai May, who become just two more figures in the ongoing story. That, along with occasional overblown prose, weakens an old-fashioned romance of Vietnam.

Trying a bit too hard for a broad-sweeping majesty, Nguyen’s first fiction works best when confined to the more intimate aspects of its character’s lives.

Pub Date: Oct. 29, 2002

ISBN: 0-316-28441-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2002

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An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.


A group of strangers who live near each other in London become fast friends after writing their deepest secrets in a shared notebook.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist, is bone-crushingly lonely when he starts “The Authenticity Project”—as he titles a slim green notebook—and begins its first handwritten entry questioning how well people know each other in his tiny corner of London. After 15 years on his own mourning the loss of his beloved wife, he begins the project with the aim that whoever finds the little volume when he leaves it in a cafe will share their true self with their own entry and then pass the volume on to a stranger. The second person to share their inner selves in the notebook’s pages is Monica, 37, owner of a failing cafe and a former corporate lawyer who desperately wants to have a baby. From there the story unfolds, as the volume travels to Thailand and back to London, seemingly destined to fall only into the hands of people—an alcoholic drug addict, an Australian tourist, a social media influencer/new mother, etc.—who already live clustered together geographically. This is a glossy tale where difficulties and addictions appear and are overcome, where lies are told and then forgiven, where love is sought and found, and where truths, once spoken, can set you free. Secondary characters, including an interracial gay couple, appear with their own nuanced parts in the story. The message is strong, urging readers to get off their smartphones and social media and live in the real, authentic world—no chain stores or brands allowed here—making friends and forming a real-life community and support network. And is that really a bad thing?

An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7861-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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A strict report, worthy of sympathy.


A violent surfacing of adolescence (which has little in common with Tarkington's earlier, broadly comic, Seventeen) has a compulsive impact.

"Nobody big except me" is the dream world of Holden Caulfield and his first person story is down to the basic, drab English of the pre-collegiate. For Holden is now being bounced from fancy prep, and, after a vicious evening with hall- and roommates, heads for New York to try to keep his latest failure from his parents. He tries to have a wild evening (all he does is pay the check), is terrorized by the hotel elevator man and his on-call whore, has a date with a girl he likes—and hates, sees his 10 year old sister, Phoebe. He also visits a sympathetic English teacher after trying on a drunken session, and when he keeps his date with Phoebe, who turns up with her suitcase to join him on his flight, he heads home to a hospital siege. This is tender and true, and impossible, in its picture of the old hells of young boys, the lonesomeness and tentative attempts to be mature and secure, the awful block between youth and being grown-up, the fright and sickness that humans and their behavior cause the challenging, the dramatization of the big bang. It is a sorry little worm's view of the off-beat of adult pressure, of contemporary strictures and conformity, of sentiment….

A strict report, worthy of sympathy.

Pub Date: June 15, 1951

ISBN: 0316769177

Page Count: -

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1951

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