Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Short Girls

I remember our neighbors’ pride, the mother’s need to assert her status as hostess while living in a house owned and furnished by the church, and, reading Short Girls I recognized immediately the daughters’ discomfort when the well-meaning family of sponsors shows up at the father’s citizenship ceremony. Somehow, I can’t quite explain it, but I rejoiced inside to hear Nguyen’s explanation of the awkwardness from the inside. Maybe it’s as simply as a relief in the great fact that we have a Vietnamese-American writer who can explain to everyone, even those who haven’t seen it themselves, the utter lack of interest a child might feel in a sponsoring family. I love the honest ingratitude of children, even grown ones.

That citizenship ceremony is the heart of the book and it’s where the separate lives of the Luong sisters reconnect. This book, like Sima’s Undergarments for Women, has a plot structure that is designed to soothe and please: things are a mess at the beginning and you have, from the start, some sense that, somehow, things will improve. The party that we know will bring the sisters together happens a little more than halfway through the book: I loved that I couldn’t predict the aftermath of the book, but that, from the start, I had eager hope for what I knew would be interesting. That is a deeply satisfying kind of story to me these days.

Van Luong is the good sister, an immigration lawyer, but her husband has left her; Linny, the bad girl, is reconsidering her affair with a married man. Since they’re both in their late-twenties, a lot of the plot’s conflict revolves around figuring out a way to find a life partner, but that is not the only thing. I love how Nguyen promotes their search for satisfying careers to equal importance. Linny’s job, designing recipes for “You Did It Dinners,” one of those catering places that helps working mommies assemble casseroles is a wonderful job for a slacker girl: she’s gifted at cooking, but, lord, is this how she’s going to spend her life? Making up non-threatening burrito-bake recipes for other women to assemble? And when Van’s husband blames her for losing a hopeless immigration case, her utter collapse of confidence, too, seems like just the kind of folding of confidence I saw again and again among my ambitious friends at the first big career setback: the decision that, oh well, I really didn’t want to do public service/litigation/inner city teaching, I’ll just settle here.

The novel is mercifully free of faux-exotic details—and mocks those white friends who want them—but there is a deeply realized sense of the Vietnamese community of Michigan, its development, how it revolves around the family that got rich first, how the Luongs, by buying a house a few neighborhoods away, lost touch with its center, how it looks now (in 2003) that some of the children of 1975 have children of their own.

Van is an appealing but hard to know character: there is something deeply private about her; even up to the end, she seems a little unknowable in her studiousness. That meant that it took me a while to feel at home with her—even as I was in the novel’s world from the very first page—a fantastic scene of the young abandoned wife, worrying that she’ll forget the alarm’s code because it’s their wedding date. But, as the novel unfolded, I learned how much stock I was to take in little clues—that Van would never tell us, that Nguyen will never tell us—directly why she became an immigration lawyer, but that, in her poring over post-9/11 rule changes we could infer her deep ethical commitment to working for immigrant rights.

1 comment:

girish said...

Thanks for post. It’s really imformative stuff.
I really like to read.Hope to learn a lot and have a nice experience here! my best regards guys!

fateh singh
seo jaipur--seo jaipur