The story of a Vietnamese woman named Mãn, living in Montreal and working in her husband’s restaurant. It is told mostly through snapshots of her life, with her recollections of her mother and of Vietnamese culture scattered throughout the book.
The edition I am reviewing was translated from the original French by Sheila Fischman.
As I said, the story is told mostly through the medium of snapshots of Mãn’s life, so it is no surprise that it can be quite meandering in places. The things that she tells us about depend largely on the memories associated with whatever she happens to be cooking, which in turn depends upon her mood, lending the book an almost stream-of-consciousness feeling.
This sometimes makes it a little difficult to follow the story, but each chapter is so short (and so beautifully written) that it doesn’t detract from the experience to go back and re-read a couple of chapters here and there.
Mãn is a very passive character: She takes whatever life throws at her and very rarely seems phased by anything, which makes her a very good narrator. The book doesn’t have too many other very important characters – Mãn’s mother (only ever called Maman), and her friend Julie come to mind, but most other characters are only mentioned a few times. However, even these very peripheral characters are well fleshed-out, and Mãn always takes the trouble to tell everybody’s stories.
I knew going into this book that there was going to be a romance aspect to it, and that it was going to involve a married man (who wasn’t Mãn’s husband), because it said so on the blurb. But while infidelity is a topic that often makes me feel uncomfortable in literature, I found that it was very tastefully written. The romance was very under-stated, and in fact only began towards the end of the book (Mãn doesn’t even meet Luc, her love interest, until about halfway through).
I can’t speak/read French, so I can’t comment on Kim Thúy’s writing, but Sheila Fischman’s translation is beautifully written. I wasn’t initially all that excited to read this book, but this quote on the back is what sold it for me:
Maman and I don’t look like one another. She is short, I am tall. Her complexion is dark, my skin is like a French doll’s. She has a hole in her calf, and I have a hole in my heart.
OVERALL IMPRESSION [5/5]
The insights into Vietnamese culture and immigrant culture are very interesting, and the descriptions of the different kinds of food that Mãn cooks are mouth-watering, but the real strength of this book is in the writing, which is both powerful and absolutely beautiful.
Those who like the lyrical writing style of Catherynne M. Valente’s Deathless, or anyone who is interested in Vietnamese food and culture.