Mai is looking forward to a fun California beach summer, the kind where she can one-up her frenemy and potentially get to know a cute boy a little better. All that is derailed when her parents drop the surprise bomb on her: Vietnam, grandmother, responsibility, yadda, yadda. Mai's grandmother wants to find the truth about what happened to her husband, and Mai, who hardly speaks the language and has never been to Vietnam before, must go along for help and support. As Mai meets new people and tries new customs, her perspective and purpose extend beyond the ordinary.
This is an unusual book, in that it took me a while to finish (it's a slow start), but it also stayed with me long after I read it.
There are some cracked and broken pieces here that don't quite fit together. The writing is missing the lyrical beauty of this author's Inside Out and Back Again, which, admittedly, is written in verse. Several of the characters seem inconsistent or even unnecessary, like the quirky translator, or the fact that Mai is sent to a new country with a frail grandmother while her father goes and works in another part of Vietnam. Her mother, who is a successful lawyer and stays in California, is shown to be more of a nagging irritation than a model career woman or connected parent. Mai's mother also has a word-a-day challenge for her daughter that seems very forced. The words aren’t really even that complex, so strong readers in the intended age category probably wouldn’t even identify some of them as tricky or notable, and the attention drawn to them is intrusive, rather than beneficial to the story. The love triangle, in which Mai refers to her crush as "Him," is pretty shallow, even though it's intended to be a foil for the things that matter most.
What works for me about this book is Mai's transformation from spoiled American to contributing family member, who not only begins to fit in - she finally wants to fit in. North American readers can see modern-day Vietnam through Mai's eyes, and the discomfort she experiences - literally (no air conditioning, no privacy, so many mosquitoes) - and emotionally, is relatable. As part of her trip, I also enjoyed Mai's discovery of Vietnamese language and her struggle to understand and be understood. Mai’s relationship with her grandmother, or Ba, is drawn well, especially to show Mai’s preference for all things Californian shifting to a new appreciation for Vietnamese culture. Even Mai's petty concerns, while not admirable, are probably recognizably authentic, and the cross-cultural comparison between the scheming mean girl back home and the one among her new group of friends helps to illustrate the idea that some things aren't so different, no matter where you travel.
"I know that sounds desperate, but you try being banished to a swampy sauna and not succumb to a little superstition."
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