Merle Rubin, Riveting Tales of Romance and War, Christian Science Monitor

Feb 17, 2020 by Lan Cao, in Monkey Bridge

A Vietnamese girl hoping to be accepted at Mt. Holyoke College is the heroine of Lan Cao’s poignant first novel, Monkey Bridge, which offers an eye-opening look at the experience of Vietnamese immigrants in America.

Mai Nguyen and her widowed, ailing mother fled their native land in 1975 on one of the last helicopters to leave Saigon. Mai’s father, a progressive intellectual opposed both to the Vietcong and the South Vietnamese leadership, died some years before. Mai’s maternal grandfather, a peasant farmer, has been left behind. Worried about her mother’s loneliness in a new country, Nguyen tries to enlist the support of Uncle Michael, an American veteran of the Vietnam conflict and a close friend of her family, in finding a way to bring the old man to join them.

With impressive intelligence, deep emotional power, and a delicacy born of strength, Cao unfolds a story of a mother and a daughter that is also a story about the changes that unravel and rebuild the lives of nations and individuals.

We first watch as Nguyen undergoes the unsettling experience, common to children of immigrants, of becoming a kind of parent to her parent, correcting her mother’s inappropriate behavior. Knowledge and skills that once served the older woman well when haggling with vendors at an open-air Saigon market are embarrassingly out-of-place at an American supermarket.

Next, we are given a very different insight into the mother’s character from a notebook that she keeps. “Everything that smells of life before, my daughter thinks she can scour clean… How can I teach her that the worthwhile enterprise is the enterprise of learning to live with our scars? … Her own mother, the one she sees as obsolete and defective, is a woman who’s gone through more wars than she’ll ever know, who’s maneuvered through more cultures than I hope she’ll ever have to negotiate, who’s memorized book after book of Baudelaire and Moliere and Verlaine.”

There are many more surprising turns and revelations taking us deeper into the complex heart of Mai’s heritage, as a daughter of urban intellectuals, a granddaughter of tenant rice-farmers, and a survivor of a devastating war. Cao, herself a Vietnamese refugee who graduated from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and who is now a law professor at Brooklyn College, is a gifted, versatile writer, equally adept at discussing the complexities of the war, evoking the many layers of Vietnam’s long history, or portraying the emotional half-tones of a mother-daughter relationship.