FAMILY TIES: Praised for her collection of stories, We Should Never Meet, Aimee Phan returns with her first novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, a multi-generational, cross-continental family saga. Susan Soon He Stanton reviews.
ISSUE: Spring 2012
DEPT: Plugged In
STORY: Susan Soon He Stanton
Aimee Phan’s debut novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong, is an intricately woven tale of two Vietnamese families, the Truongs and the Vos, bound together by an unwanted elopement. Phan deftly tracks dozens of Truongs and Vos through their harrowing escape from Vietnam and struggles with assimilation in the West. Phan’s multigenerational, cross-continental saga is surprisingly palatable, as she explores themes of identity, love and redemption with a nuanced grace. Cherry, the youngest grandchild, struggles to unlock decades of secrets and bitterness from her family, dispersed between France and America. The novel’s greatest secret, and the one closest to Cherry’s own story, involves her brother Lum’s family imposed exile to Vietnam.
On Cherry’s visit to Vietnam, Lum tells her, “The things our family did to each other … they don’t make up who you are. Our mistakes don’t dictate our lives.” However, the flood of events in Cherry Truong suggests otherwise. Decisions made in the heat of the moment indelibly shape lives. Cherry’s mother, Tuyet, chooses one ill-fated marriage over another. Cam, a female cousin, has her entire hopes of romantic love decided over the course of a holiday party. Grandma Vo, the family dowager, decides to teach her grandchildren a dangerous lesson. In the novel’s 30-year span, perhaps the most heart-breaking story is that of Grandma Hoa Truong, who endures reeducation camp and a life of displacement in France, while quietly suffering a lifetime with a disloyal and abusive husband.
While Phan plumbs emotional depths in her narrative and subtle details add startling realism, her narrative hopscotching can still feel like a collection of short stories rather than a fluid chronicle. Jumping from one decade to the next, and one family member to the other, at times, creates a dislocating effect. Some of the family members’ stories are more compelling than others and I wanted to spend more time getting acquainted with the key players than diving into yet another narrative about a second cousin. Nonetheless, despite this circuitous journey, Phan has created a rich tapestry of two families’ difficult immigration to the West that feels emotionally honest in its messy complexity.
Phan’s sensitively rendered first novel serves up a fierce tale of ordinary families displaced from their homeland during the Vietnam War. Despite the numerous characters and complex plotline, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong is well worth the read.
- Susan Soon He Stanton
More stories from Audrey’s Spring issue here