Sisters Van and Linny Luong, born in America to Vietnamese refugees, have never seen eye to eye. Sensible Van, in her khakis and pageboy haircut, has a law degree, a promising career, a mortgage and a perfect Asian husband. And wild Linny, who could never even finish community college, is spinning her wheels at a “Do It Yourself” catering company in Chicago and sleeping with a married client.
At home in Michigan, their widowed father is marking some milestones of his own—throwing a party to celebrate his new U.S. citizenship and auditioning for a reality show for aspiring inventors (for years, his passion has been devices designed to help the short statured, such as a claw grabber called the “Luong Arm” and a periscope called the “Luong Eye”). An eccentric man, he seems to have given more attention to his harebrained ideas and his gaggle of friends than he has to his family, and both sisters are ambivalent about his achievements.
Regardless, the sisters travel home for the events, and there they must confront some of the forces that shaped them into the young women they became. Linny wonders if her disastrous love life was a result of her suspicions that her father was having an affair of his own, and Van realizes that all of her years of hiding behind school have left her unprepared to deal with the fact that her perfect marriage may be anything but. As Linny’s affair and Van’s marriage both deteriorate, they find in each other a confidante that they never knew they had.
Nguyen made a splash with her memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, and this, her first novel, has been much anticipated—with good reason. In this relatively simple story, she brings in many of the universal challenges facing second-generation immigrants, not avoiding, but almost interrogating the clichés that plague so many similar stories. Her characters are stubborn, selfish and often paralyzed with inaction, but also warm, dutiful and loving, and this careful balance makes them incredibly real and sympathetic. But the real star is the prose itself, which is succinct, efficient and peppered with perfectly chosen details that make each scene come alive.
Rebecca Shapiro is an editor and fellow short girl who writes from Brooklyn, New York.