Monday, January 7, 2013

Review: The Reeducation of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan

In The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, Aimee Phan presents two arms of a large Vietnamese family who left Vietnam after the Communists left nothing behind in their homeland. The Vo's and the Truong's, connected by marriage, part ways in Vietnam - the Vo's head to France while the Truong's head to the US and end up in Southern California.  Each branch of the family, however, is marred by what they saw in Vietnam, the journey away from their home and loved ones, and the betrayal that happened just before they left. When Cherry's brother leaves Southern California to go live in Vietnam after having lived in the US for more than fifteen years, Cherry follows him and discovers secrets about her family and understands how those secrets have chipped away at every member of the family.

Cherry has a close, but difficult, relationship with her large Vietnamese family in Southern California. With the family's matriarch, Cherry's grandmother at its center, the extended family all work in businesses together and come together often for family "celebrations" although there seems to be little celebrating being done. Instead, they spend a lot of time snapping at each other and fueling their resentments.

Cherry finds it hard to appreciate her family when they seem so plagued by unhappiness.  In addition, she struggles to fit in to US with parents with values which are often very different from those of her friends.  She is constantly reminded of all that her family sacrificed for the life she now enjoys in the US and as a result much is expected of her. In this quote, the difficult relationship Cherry has with her mother is evident:
Improve: her mother's favorite word when they were growing up, because in America, you get anything you want. So the only problem her mother could see was that Cherry didn't want it enough. What as it? . . . It could be a stellar report card, a tidier bedroom, better manners . . . Once the complaining started, Cherry had long since learned to stop listening
When Cherry travels to Vietnam, however, she learns things about her family, including her mother, which shed a new light on what drives her mother and why their relationships with each other are so fraught. Her reeducation begins and is furthered when she goes to France to see the other arm of the family.  Although her family in California often reference how much they suffered and sacrificed, Cherry reads letters while visiting Vietnam and France which reveal pain and a history never articulated by her family at home.

My thoughts
This novel spans through three generations and three countries - US, Vietnam and France.  It moves back and forward in time and among these countries and the stories of the Vo and Truong families. Once I learned the characters and how they connected, I moved easily between the families' stories and the different time periods and locations (I highly recommended leveraging the family tree in the front of the book to help with the navigation!)  As a result, I felt as if I was discovering family history alongside Cherry and was moved by each revelation.

This is an excellent immigrant story and those themes abound in the book - from the parents worrying that their children are moving too far from the values of the "old country" to this first generation who want their parents to be just like their friends' American parents.  The author expertly explores those common themes but not in a trite or cliche way. The pain felt in both generations and that tension between old and new was palpable.

The Reeducation of Cherry Truong has much to offer - an immigrant story, historical fiction set in post war Vietnam but also France and the US - but above all, it is a well-written, compelling family drama.  Highly recommend.

9 comments:

  1. My mother is first generation American so I grew up hearing immigrant stories. Because of that, I'm always moved when I read one. This sounds really good - I'll keep in mind what you said about the family tree if I read it.

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  2. Well, dang - I had this one and on a massive book purge a few months ago, I got rid of it. And this is why I have such a hard time getting rid of books!

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  3. I love the diversity of books you review, covering the full immigrant picture of our diverse country. The Reeducation looks like a good addition to this body of literature. Thanks for the intro to a new author.

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  4. Sounds like an excellent book, I think it needs to be added to mount tbr. I also love the cover. Thanks for the review.

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  5. This book sounds fabulous! I love reading immigrant books, especially because they deal with identities and questions of where is home. I will check this one out!

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  6. After reading The Reeducation Of Cherry Truong the thing I will most remember is: how like Western families Vietnamese families are - infidelity, power plays, jealousy, love, pain, the whole damn thing, they are all there in this enjoyable absorbing read.

    Mariz
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  7. Thanks to the complexities and stunning layers of plot, lineage and meaning, I was never, ever bored -- which is the number one reason I put books down. Not this one! I picked it up every chance I got, over and over again until it was done! Beautiful.

    Penelope
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