At first impression, the story is very familiar: two American-born sisters of Vietnamese American immigrants – one the high-achieving ‘good’ daughter with her law degree, the other the ‘lost’ daughter with fast friends and temporary jobs that never last long.
But in Bich Minh Nguyen‘s heart-string-pulling first novel, Van and Linny Luong are anything but stereotypes, living complicated inner lives filled with searching and rarely enough understanding. Their distant father, camped out in the basement of their childhood home, considers himself an inventor. His Luong Arm is a promising tool for short people trying to reach too-high places … a metaphor that fits all four members of the petite Luong family. Because of their short stature, he constantly tells his girls they must work that much harder to achieve success, often quoting a mistaken version of Randy Newman’s 1970s pop hit: “short people are no reason to live.”
The girls’ no-nonsense mother who managed to keep the family together, has been gone for nine years, reduced to an Olan Mills portrait and a box of ashes. Both could use some maternal guidance. Van’s near-perfect life disappears overnight when her husband walks out without explanation. Ironically, Linny’s playing the ‘other woman’ with a married man she met delivering ready-made meals to wealthy Chicago families with no time to cook – but plenty of time to step out.
As young girls, the sisters thought of themselves as the invincible Trung Sisters from first-century Vietnam. But as they grew up and their priorities took vastly divergent turns, their communication devolved into barbs and sarcasm. With Mom gone, and Dad buried in his basement, Van and Linny have no other family left except each other … and cautiously, they begin to rebuild their neglected sisterhood, shedding long-hidden secrets one by one to finally reveal their true selves.
Following the success of her delicious debut memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, Nguyen’s first foray into fiction is a quiet, resonating portrait of family lost and found …