Thursday, September 18, 2014

Two sisters finding their way

Short Girls, Bich Minh Nguyen

The "short girls" of the title are two sisters, Van and Linh (Linny) Luong.  They have just been summoned home to Michigan, where they grew up in a suburb of Grand Rapids, by their widowed father Dinh:
After twenty-eight years of stubbornness her father was finally taking his oath of citizenship, letting go at last of his refugee status and the green Permanent Resident Alien Card.  He had taken the test, handed over his fingerprints, had his background checked - the last of his friends to do so.  To celebrate, he was throwing a party in the old style, the way all of the Vietnamese families in their town used to gather in the late seventies and eighties, finding relief in their free-flowing beer and language.  It would be a reunion, a remembrance of their collective flight from Vietnam and settlement in America - 1975 all over again.
It is not a convenient time for either daughter to return home.  Van, the elder, born just months after her parents arrived in the United States, is a lawyer working on immigration cases for an Ann Arbor firm.  She has not told either her father or her sister that she recently suffered a miscarriage, nor the equally devastating news that her Chinese American husband Miles has left her. "I don't think I want to live with you anymore," he said one evening, and walked out.  Van, who put all of her energy, all of herself, into her education, her law degree, and then her marriage, is left drifting, waiting for Miles to call, to come home.

Her sister Linny is a bit adrift as well.  More easy-going than her sister, she has always been considered the beauty of the family, with Van the smart one.  Linny slid through school, more interested in clothes and boys and parties, though she also spent many hours in the kitchen with her mother, learning traditional Vietnamese dishes.  She found it difficult to focus in college and eventually dropped out to work at various low-paying jobs.  After her mother died, she left small-town Michigan behind for Chicago.  Now she has put her cooking experience to work for a company that prepares ready-made, rather bland meals for busy families.  Delivering the meals, she met a married man, Gary, with whom she has been carrying on an affair for several months.  Naturally this isn't news she is eager to share with her father or her sister.  Nor is she excited about returning home for her father's party, because she will have to buy and prepare all the food.

After so many years, Mr. Luong has finally decided to become a U.S. citizen because he believes it will help him patent and sell his inventions, the Luong Arm, a metal rod with a claw on the end; and the Luong Eye, a periscope-type device.  Both the devices are designed for short people, to help them reach things and to see in crowds.  He spends most of his time in a basement workshop, tinkering with them and developing new ideas.  Mr. Luong is obsessed with height differences.  He believes that Asians suffer discrimination in America because they are shorter, on average.  All their lives, he has reminded his daughters that they are short, so they must work hard to overcome that disadvantage. He is absolutely convinced that his inventions will not only make him rich and famous, but also improve the lives of short people beyond measure.

In chapters that alternate between Van and Linny, the sisters reluctantly face returning home.  The story moves between the past and present, as they look back on their childhood, growing up with first-generation immigrant parents, trying to find a balance between Vietnam and America.  But their parents bought a house in a predominately-Anglo neighborhood, rather than within the Vietnamese community, which tipped that balance toward America, at least for their daughters.  The sisters look at their parents' marriage, in light of their own relationships and the choices they have made.  Their lives have gone in very different directions, and they have lost the closeness of their shared childhood.  The party brings them together again, sometimes in shared exasperation with their father, and offers an opening to reconnect.

There is obviously a lot going on in this book.  The characters are struggling with issues of identity on several levels.  Van seems to have lost herself, even more than her husband.  Both she and Linny are still working through the loss of their mother Thuy, who is a vivid presence in the story through their memories.   They are also grappling with what it means to be family, and what makes a marriage.  At least the two sisters are.  Mr. Luong down in his basement has his own obsessions, his own expectations of his daughters.  He also has a busy social life with his old friends in the immigrant community, though Van and Linny have lost touch with their friends.  Van's legal work with immigrants of all backgrounds throws another light on that issue, which takes on a particular urgency after September 11th.

I thought that Ms. Nguyen did a great job of balancing all of these themes.  Her characters felt very real to me.  I found myself as exasperated as the sisters with Mr. Luong's self-centeredness and obsessions, but that was nothing compared to the loathing I felt for Van's husband Miles.  I so longed for someone to sit Van down and tell her just how much better off she was without him.  He adds an interesting element to the story, though, as a thoroughly-assimilated Chinese American, from a wealthy West Coast family, very different from Van's small-town midwestern family, with "fobby" parents (short for "fresh off the boat").  I also appreciated that the author did not wrap everything up neatly in a happy ending.  I would like to revisit these characters in a few years, and see where their lives have taken them.

I learned about this book from the same Book Riot post that introduced me to Shilpi Somaya Gowda's Secret Daughter.  I have been saving their recommendations for the "A More Diverse Universe" reading challenge, hosted by Aarti at Book Lust.  I'm really glad I chose this one!  I will also be reading Ms. Nguyen's memoir, Stealing Buddha's Dinner, which mixes food and the immigrant experience.  Like her characters here, she also grew up in Grand Rapids.  When I moved to Texas from Michigan, I discovered that Houston has been a hub for Vietnamese immigration since the 1970s, but I had no idea that Michigan was another.  I look forward to learning more about that community with Ms. Nguyen.


  1. You know I put Secret Daughter in my list after reading your post, now this one gets added, too!

  2. I spent the first 20 years about 50 miles from Grand Rapids and I find it funny to think of Vietnamese living in that area. Of course I left in the early 70's and never returned. I enjoyed reading about this book.

  3. JoAnn, that's a lovely compliment on a post :) I think you will enjoy both of them.

    Pam, I did think of you with the Michigan setting! I was in East Lansing/Lansing both times I lived there, and I don't know much about Grand Rapids.

  4. The memoir that incorporates food (and hopefully recipes) sounds right up my alley! How wonderful :-)

    I have spent time in Grand Rapids. It's lovely but doesn't strike me as particularly diverse, so that probably adds even more nuance here.

  5. Aarti, I am picking it up at the library tomorrow, just too late for Diversiverse! Thank you again for hosting us.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!