Sunday, July 26, 2009

Short Girls

Short Girls, by Bich Minh Nguyen
Release: July 27, 2009
ISBN 978-0-670-02081-2

Van and Linny Luong are as different as it is possible for sisters to get – one, a plain Jane overachiever who seems to have found success in love and her career; the other - pretty , glamorous and directionless. Yet both have secrets – Van’s husband has abruptly ended their picture perfect marriage without explanation; Linny gets involved with a married man just as she has begun establishing a career. Even as both sisters struggle with heartbreak and humiliation, they meet again at their father’s house to help him celebrate his American citizenship. Surrounded by the people and memories of their past, and connected by their shared estrangement from their Vietnamese heritage, the sisters hesitantly reach out to each other. Over the course of a few weeks, they forge a new relationship that helps them resolve their own personal issues.

Bich Minh Nguyen’s (pronounced Bit Min Nwin) first book, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, was a well received memoir of her childhood and teenage years as a first generation Vietnamese American . Much like that book, this one too is about the search for identity and a sense of belonging, and each character struggles with it in their own ways. If Van is suddenly forced to be her own person after years of living upto the expectations of others, Linny finds herself drawn to the very people and customs she has spent her adult life trying to escape. Both sisters in turn chafe against the filial ties that bind them to their cantankerous father, even as they consider the possibility that he may have been unfaithful to their deceased mother. Mr Luong, after a lifetime of disillusionment with his adopted country, accepts citizenship in a final bid for success as an inventor of gadgets for short people. His obsession with shortness could just as well be his reaction to his own feelings of alienation in America, his appliances a way of being seen, heard and acknowledged in a land he remains foreign to. There is even an interesting subplot involving Van’s work as an immigration lawyer, and the increasing difficulties faced by her clients in post 9/11 America.

Nguyen examines her characters with a keen eye and a gentle touch – there is a calm fluid quality to her prose that kept me riveted to the book. Parallels to Jhumpa Lahiri and Amy Tan are evident, not just in the common themes of inter-generational relationships among immigrants , but also in the attention to the tiny nuances of these complex, layered characters. And much like Tan and Lahiri have done in their work, Nguyen too alternates her focus between Van and Linny’s lives, revisiting their childhood through the lenses of their respective memories.

The plot does head for a rather conventional , crowd-pleasing end, which I felt a little disappointed by, especially where the resolution of Linny’s life is concerned. I was also a little baffled by the graphics of the book cover, which do very little for the very engaging story within.

A subdued yet compelling read, and a finely detailed study of the ties that bind us, confound us and make us who we are.

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