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Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao

Monkey Bridge

by Lan Cao

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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 |
Monkey Bridge is the story of Mai and Thanh, recent immigrants to America from Vietnam. Through the kindness of Uncle Michael, an American GI and family friend, Mai was able to leave before the fall of Saigon; her mother, Thanh, followed through the American airlift shortly after. The novel highlights the struggle for Mai and her mother to assimilate in America. For Mai, the struggle is not too difficult. Within a few months, she has learned to appreciate America’s shopping malls, has gotten used to the chill of Virginia, and speaks American English without a Vietnamese accent. For Thanh, the adjustment is more challenging. In Vietnam, Thanh’s French convent school education gave her fluency in French and a love for the French classics. In America, she is just another immigrant who spoke no English.

In their effort to assimilate, Mai and her mother have ignored the riddle that continues to prey on their minds: on the day that her mother was airlifted out of Saigon, Mai’s grandfather, Baba Quan, was left behind. Mai is confused by her mother’s alternating grief for and seeming indifference to Baba Quan. When Thanh suffers a stroke, Mai hears her call out for Baba Quan. This incident sparks Mai’s resolve to find her grandfather, because she believes Baba Quan is the only person who can ease Thanh’s disquiet.

Lan Cao has clearly written an autobiographical novel. In the book’s jacket, the author is described as having left Vietnam in 1975. The photo, naturally, is the requisite black and white. Lan Cao is wearing black, standing against a stark background with her arms folded, unsmiling. Clearly, this is a very serious book about a very serious subject from a very serious writer.

Lan Cao, however, cannot quite reach her ambition. That’s not to say that Monkey Bridge is altogether bad. The descriptions of Little Saigon will ring true for any immigrant who has tried to find a familiar enclave in their adoptive country. Mrs. Bay, Thanh’s best friend, is touching in her zeal; she is so grateful to be given a fresh start that she maintains a cheerful disposition each day, despite her fears for Vietnam. Compared to the flatness of Thanh and Mai, Mrs. Bay is full of life, and it is the passages where she was included that I read with the most enjoyment.

Unfortunately, Monkey Bridge is so clearly autobiographical that the author muddles the narrative. The story itself is interesting, but its execution is ungainly and full of amateur touches. The ending felt cheap and shoddy, complete with maudlin melodrama and a big reveal that came out of nowhere like a bat out of hell. What makes Monkey Bridge so disappointing is that the author was unable to mold such rich, raw experience into something great. Mai had this to say about her mother, Thanh, and it sums up my discontent with this novel:

We were both in the space where all things linger, only to turn unpredictably with the exquisite swiftness of a hard flower. We all enter this space when we wait – for motionless shadows to shift with a moment’s notice, and hopes to become possibilities.

Like Mai, I too held my breath, waiting for the author to spin a tale that would captivate. Sadly, Lan Cao did not deliver because she was unsure whether she wanted to write a novel or a memoir; in the end, Monkey Bridge succeeds as neither.

Originally posted on my Vox and my LJ. ( )
  bastardmoon | Sep 18, 2007 |
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To my mother (1925-1992)
First words
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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