For the first time in fiction, the unmapped territory of the Vietnamese immigrant experience is examined in this tale of a young girl's coming-of-age in the United States in the aftermath of war. Mai Nguyen's journey begins when she leaves Vietnam in February 1975, just before the withdrawal of American troops from Saigon. She enters the world of Falls Church, Virginia, a "Little Saigon" community that encompasses refugees and veterans, reinvented lives and entrepreneurial schemes, secrets and lies about a war-torn and conflicted past, and Mai's dreams for a newly minted American future. But the secrets, and what is both hidden and revealed in diaries found buried in her mother's dresser drawer, pull Mai inexorably back to Vietnam. Within these diaries, Mai retraces not only her own earliest experiences, but also her mother's and grandmother's histories - and the story that began to unfold a generation past in the rice fields of the Mekong Delta. Past and present, east and west, Vietnamese myth and American-style reality intertwine and, ultimately, the legacy of long-simmering hatreds and what occurred late one afternoon in a burial ground near the banks of the Mekong River is revealed.
In the past dozen years, fiction has certainly taught us that for Asian-Americans, being a daughter is no tea party. As if to hammer home the point, Lan Cao's Monkey Bridgewhich is being touted as the first novel by a Vietnamese-American about the immigrant experiencedepicts generational angst worthy of an Amy Tan novel.
Mai Nguyen, Cao's buttoned-up, adolescent narrator, shares the same preoccupations of the four daughters in The Joy Luck Club: making sense of a maddeningly enigmatic and strong-willed mother who's guarding an unsavory old-world secret. Fleeing Vietnam in 1975, just before U.S. troops evacuate Saigon, Mai and her mother arrive in Falls Church, Va., and must come to grips with each other and a community coping with the aftermath of war (the "American War," as the Vietnamese call it).
Navigating suburbia is no problem for Mai; she interprets the adventures of "The Bionic Woman" for her mother, learns English without a trace of an accent and uses psychology"the new American religion" to make her mother's seemingly outlandish demands appear kosher to American onlookers. Mai becomes her mother's mother in an alien culture: "We were going through life in reverse, and I was the one who would help my mother through the hard scrutiny of ordinary suburban life."
Comparisons to Tan don't reflect badly on Monkey Bridge, especially since Cao has a distinctive style that's subtle and engaging. But because the novel is so clearly autobiographical, I wished that Cao had abandoned her creaky literary devices and written a memoir. In the interests of creating a compelling narrative, Cao shamelessly leads the reader toward the soap-operatic revelation of Mai's mother's murky parentage. The sensationalism feels tacked on, while the well-chosen details are what gives the story its energy.
Cao excels at memorializing, conveying ironies in the simplest details. For instance, the Mekong Grocery, where Mai's mother works, becomes a meeting place for the American GIs of Falls Church who want to indulge their taste for Vietnamese delicacies and distaste for Jane Fonda. Cao also tells us that in Saigon women buy paper bags of canaries and hummingbirds and free them for the karma of doing a kind deed. And we learn that in Vietnamese, the word for "please" is "make good karma." ("Make good karma and pass the butter.") In "Monkey Bridge," it's the glimpses of Vietnamese-American culturenot the melodramathat left me wanting more.