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Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao

Monkey Bridge

by Lan Cao

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A monkey bridge is a perilous and precarious Vietnamese rope bridge that requires a very delicate balancing act to cross. Mai, the Vietnamese immigrant main character of Lan Cao’s heartbreaking novel has to cross a metaphorical monkey bridge as she simultaneously balances her new life in the United States with her efforts to hold on to her Vietnamese roots and history. Her attempts are complicated even more because the novel’s action takes place in the mid to late 1970’s – a time when the U.S. was trying hard to forget its involvement in an unpopular war in that country.

Mai, who came to the U.S. through the benevolence of an American soldier her family befriended, is joined by her mother, Thanh after the fall of Saigon. Her mother has a difficult time adjusting and is dependent on Mai to negotiate and interpret a completely alien culture and lifestyle. When Thanh falls ill, Mai tries to locate her grandfather, Thanh’s father, who was left behind in Vietnam. Mai hopes that his presence will provide comfort for Thanh so that Mai can leave her mother with a support system when she goes away to college.

Immigrant novels abound, but what makes this story unique is the fact that the Vietnam War was so unpopular that once it ended, Americans tried hard to forget it. Unwanted reminders of the war (such as Vietnam vets and Vietnamese refugees) were inconvenient truths who were ignored at best and more typically abandoned. As a result, Thanh makes efforts to present a carefully constructed version of her personal history to her daughter; a history that in the end, she cannot sustain.

It is noteworthy that both mother and daughter have two sets of fathers, each of whom symbolize a distinct and tragic segment of Vietnamese history. Their stories are the story of 20th Century Vietnam.

Cao’s writing is beautiful and successfully blends both ancient Vietnamese mythology and culture with American pop culture.

The author describes the physical shape of Vietnam as a seahorse. Interestingly, she uses that same word to describe Mai’s mother. Mai’s mother is the embodiment of the land and her complicated family history is the history of the country. Balancing past and present, Mai has to navigate her own perilous monkey bridge - an act that requires that she hold on to both her Vietnamese heritage and the new life she is making in the United States. ( )
  plt | Jul 18, 2015 |
An uneven first novel that is by turns compelling and awkward, Monkey Bridge might best be appreciated as a compendium of the ways that post-traumatic stress disorder is experienced and enacted. The voice of the protagonist, a teen who fled Vietnam just before the fall of Saigon, is believable. Since the novel has been described as semi-autobiographical, I would expect this to be the case. The mother's voice in the novel's real time also works; her poetic, literary voice as depicted in her writings rings false, and not just for reasons that make sense within the narrative. Unfortunately, this voice keeps sliding into what reads like an imitation of the mother in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Still, if these awkward passages can be put aside, the novel does an excellent job of depicting the immigrant/refugee experience from a young adult's perspective, the tensions that arise almost immediately between generations of immigrants, and the forces that seem to compel the romantic reconstruction of one's country of origin. ( )
  OshoOsho | Mar 30, 2013 |
This is a beautifully written, semi-autobiographical novel about immigration, coming-of-age, love, mother-daughter relationships, and so much more.

The story is told from two views, mother and daughter, though the daughter’s view predominates. The mother’s story is conveyed in letters and diary entries and appears rarely, but is the more lyrical writing and very effective and affecting.

Both women escaped the war in Vietnam and went to the United States about three years prior to the beginning of the story, which is related in both real time and flashback. The daughter, Mai, was the first to leave Vietnam, accompanied by a U. S. soldier/family friend who housed her until her mother could join her. Mai’s assimilation of English and the U. S. culture was much quicker, both because she was younger and had more time to acquire Americanization, than it was for her mother. Also, her mother, Tran, being older and having lived in Vietnam for a much longer time, was not so willing to give up her Vietnamese superstitions and culture. Through Mai and Tran we learn both what it was like to live in Vietnam in the years of the U. S. war and to try to immigrate to a new country and culture. We also learn much about the women’s past lives and hopes for the future.

Recommended. ( )
1 vote whymaggiemay | Oct 28, 2011 |
Girl escapes Saigon in 1975 to be reunited with her mother in Falls Church, Virginia. Beautifully written account of old life and traditions and the immigrant experience. ( )
  mnlohman | Sep 27, 2010 |
This is the story of Mai, who immigrates to America after the war, and her mother who follows some time after. Mai, being younger, takes on the American language and culture more completely than her mother, who in Vietnam seemed a stronger, more capable and intelligent woman, but in America seems to become foggy and troubled.

After a stroke, Mai's mother's mental state seems to deteriorate further, and Mai hears her calling for Baba Quan, her mother's father who was left behind in Vietnam. This causes Mai to begin a search for a way to bring Baba Quan to America so that he may ease her mother's heart and allow Mai to leave home for college. The story explores the past and relationship of the two, the trauma they suffered in Vietnam, the clash between Mai's world of American schooling and science and her mother's of curses and karma, and their desire to care for one another and yet their need to push the other away.

I pretty much read this book twice for school. The first time I had a more favorable impression, but I think that may have stemmed from having a Vietnamese mother myself and some things in it being amusingly familiar. The second time through, it seemed a more average read. Also, the book's conclusion, though I predicted it very early on, felt as if it came rather out of left-field build-up wise, and was also a bit unsatisfying. As I read it the second time I think it just stressed that even more, as I was able to watch and see the build to it...or rather notice the semi-lack thereof.

Usually I'd rate a book on the first impression, but I think the second was really more representative of the actual quality of the book. It's still alright, though. ( )
  narwhaltortellini | Nov 16, 2007 |
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To my mother (1925-1992)
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The smell of blood, warm and wet, rose from the floor and settled into the solemn stillness of the hospital air.
Now a mere three and a half years or so after her last call to the sky market, the dreadful truth was simply this: 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.
Aunt Mary couldn’t possibly understand that immigration represents unlimited possibilities for rebirth, reinvention, and other fancy euphemisms for half-truths and outright lies.
His beauty was of a different sort, raw and elegant. He was precisely built, with a self-assured and easy grace that accommodated rather than opposed. As a child I could lie in his arms, and they held me like a sturdy hammock on a windy day.
In one way or another, my mother and her friends were not much unlike the physically wounded. They had continued to hang on to their Vietnam lives, caressing the shape of a country that was no longer there, in a way not much different from amputees who continued o feel the silhouette of their absent limbs.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140263616, Paperback)

Just months before the Communists roll into Saigon in 1975, Mai Ngyuen, the young Vietnamese narrator of Monkey Bridge, is packed off to the U.S. Her sorrowing mother escapes in the final hours, leaving Mai's grandfather behind. Now it's Mai who plays the elder, navigating a rude, incomprehensible culture that makes possible a sudden twist in life. "Not only could we become anything we wanted to be in America, we could change what we had once been in Vietnam," she realizes. Though Mai watches her mother's ebullient friend shave years off her age and a one-time bar girl lay claim to a virtuous past as a Confucian teacher, she never wonders how much of their lives her mother has reinvented. Following in the footsteps of The Woman Warrior, this compelling novel draws on folk tales and traditions. Despite false notes and occasionally clunky dialogue, it delivers a neat knockout punch in the end.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:54 -0400)

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Charting the unmapped territory of the Vietnamese American experience in the aftermath of war, the narratives here traverse perilously between worlds past and present, East and West, telling two interlocking stories.

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