A debut novel that explores family and fate

Earlier this month, I was delighted to see my mailbox at work contained an advance reading copy of a book due to be published in March 2012. I perked up right away, seeing the author was Aimee Phan, whom I'd recruited to The Oregonian in 2000 as a summer intern.

She'd grown up in Orange County, California, home to the country's largest concentration of Vietnamese Americans, and had majored in English at UCLA. She did a credible job as a reporter in a suburban bureau but I sensed she was destined for greater things as a writer of literature than a journalist. Sure enough, she went on to get her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, considered by many to be the premier graduate writing program in the United States, and published a collection of short stories ("We Should Never Meet") about the Vietnamese and Amerasian children left adrift in two countries by the Vietnam War.

I read that book when it came out in 2005, so I was eager to dive into Aimee's debut novel, "The Reeducation of Cherry Truong." It's a marvelous book, ambitious in its sweep. The story lines revolve around two families, the Truongs and the Vos, who escape from Vietnam during the war at different times and under very different circumstances. One of the Truong sons and a Vo daughter married in Vietnam and so the two families are linked as they try to shape new lives for themselves in foreign lands. Some family members move to France while others immigrate to the United States -- to the Little Saigon community of Orange County that the author knows so well.

The novel rings with authenticity as Phan sketches characters spanning three generations. There are familiar archetypes here -- a domineering grandfather and his long-suffering wife, a bad-boy brother, a studious cousin, quarreling sisters working in a family-owned nail salon and more -- and their stories are told from multiple perspectives. The 12 chapters alternate points of view of different characters as the narrative goes back and forth in time, traversing hemispheres and exploring the forces that drove the families apart and the bonds that might yet hold them together.

Aimee Phan

Cherry, the youngest of four Truong cousins, travels from Southern California to Vietnam to visit her older brother, Lum, who has been banished by his family. As she journeys to her family's homeland, she uncovers family secrets that shine a light on her relatives' behaviors and inform her understanding of choices made and opportunities seized -- or not.

One of things I love most about literature is losing myself in a fictional world that is both familiar and unfamiliar. Certainly, there's nothing in my past that would come close to replicating the experiences and worldviews of people whose lives were shaped by war. Yet, there's something very familiar in the sense that I can relate to characters whose words, actions and personalities transcend racial and ethnic differences.

If you love to read, put this one on your list for next spring.

P.S. Aimee is now an assistant professor at the California College of the Arts in Oakland. I expect a book tour next year will bring her to Portland.

Book cover: amazon.com
Photograph: aimeephan.com

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