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The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

The Lotus Eaters (2010)

by Tatjana Soli

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The tragedy of the Vietnam War never ceases to stagger--this novel spans ten years, flashing back from the American surrender of Saigon in April 1975 to explore the intertwined fates of two Americans and their Vietnamese interpreter. Comprising a romantic triangle are Sam Darrow, a glamorous, jaded, 40ish photographer; Helen Adams, an aspiring neophyte photographer in her early twenties when she arrives to cover the war; and Linh, the son of intelligentsia from the North, whose initial goal is to cease being a soldier. I almost didn't read this book. After browsing through the first few chapters, I was initially doubtful that it would be worth the effort, but I am glad that I kept going. This is such a visceral work: there are constant references to the heat, the smells, the rain, the mud, the colors. The characters' role as members of the press is to try to bear witness to the violent, unpredictable consequences of the war as observers, not participants. Naturally, this is an impossible proposition--they are all both victims of and active protagonists within the conflict. There are no answers here, but a beautifully written evocation of the simultaneously horrific and spellbinding realities of the war. ( )
  LizHD | Mar 25, 2015 |
I listened to this book on Audible.com. My fascination with Vietnam was increased after reading Soli's account of a female freelance photographer in Vietnam. Her story of how the protagonist learned about war, photographing combat and the Vietnamese made this read more like non-fiction than a novel. How I feel about Vietnam may have a lot to do with my age at the time, but it is still worth reading if the subject interests you.
  clprice | Feb 22, 2015 |
The most difficult part of reviewing my thoughts on The Lotus Eaters is condensing them enough
to speak with simplicity.
I checked the average reader's review (usually 3* to 5*)
My question was: You were how old during the Vietnam conflict?

As in any conflict, I feel your personal interpretation varies with your proximity to the war.
The title is apropos.
From Homer's Odyssey ----
After leaving Troy and miles from the original course, Odysseus sends 3 brave men as scouts
to the strange land they approached.
They were introduced to the lotus and "Odysseus says: the native fruit made my soldiers forget everything they had ever know; where they were from, where they were going, everything......
Minus three, we sailed in the direction of our original course."

Our story begins in April 1975, in the final days of a falling Saigon.
The following quotation says it best:
Entering the setting, we'll meet, in retrospect, "three remarkable photographers brought together under the impossible umbrella of war:
Helen Adams, a once-naïve ingénue whose ambition conflicts with her desire over the course of the fighting;
Linh, the mysterious Vietnamese man who loves her, but is torn between conflicting loyalties to his homeland and his heart;
and Sam Darrow, a man addicted to the narcotic of violence, to his intoxicating affair with Helen and to the ever-increasing danger of his job.
All three become transformed by the conflict they have risked everything to record."

Tatjana Soli walks with us through heavily chronicled times with decisive realism.
The author notes --- " because a woman was naturally an outsider in the Vietnam conflict, she will see things that might be otherwise overlooked."
and "unlike now, journalists had complete access, which is probably why we ultimately got the real story from there."
war....betrayal....obsession....courage....fear...love lost...the redemptive power of love.

As the author explores her characters with physical, mental emotional and spiritual clarity,
I witnessed their evolution and felt my own.

It's fiction...but reads as nonfiction.
Hope you enjoy the read (listen, in my case) as much as I did. ( )
  pennsylady | Jan 14, 2015 |
Having studied Vietnam in depth in the course of my undergraduate degree, having traveled extensively through the country and having lived in the Asia Pacific region for many years, I have read a lot of books related to Vietnam. This is one of the best fiction accounts I have read and there are a number of reasons for that to be the case.

The story is told primarily from the viewpoint of a woman photographer who initially comes to Vietnam in 1965 to discover the truth of her brothers death and ends up staying for a variety of reasons and in doing so covers the war from beginning to end. On arrival she is a naive and derided by the male war correspondents, photographers and soldiers. She is considered a distraction, a potential demoralization for the troops in the event that she is killed in combat and not up to the macho standards of her male colleagues.

She forges ahead and in doing so, develops contacts that only a woman would be able to make and sees the war from a viewpoint that only a woman could have. The interactions are believable. The relationships make sense - anyone who has forged relationships in adversity understands the heightened sense of passion of magnitude these take on. Likewise, those that have spent time in heightened adversity understand that a break from that atmosphere can leave one flattened with difficulty readjusting to the "real world".

What made this book most compelling for me though, was the way Vietnam jumped off the page. There are certain sights and smells that for those that have been, understand. The book captures all of that atmosphere - from the cramped streets of Saigon; the smells of street vendors cooking; the fruits, vegetables and the particular smell of vegetation. She captures the storms that roll in every afternoon that create a steamy, humid evening. The taste of cognac and the salt on your lips and body after bathing in ocean water warmer than body temperature.

She is also able to capture the beauty of the countryside and the sense of mystic that is part of the Buddhist tradition and the Vietnamese people. What was the most refreshing though was that the story was not the typical American in Vietnam- democracy defeated by the evil VC/Charlie/Uncle Ho Marine crap that usually populates these types of novels. It is about a people who have endured French, American and Communist occupation in order to evolve into what they really want to be - independent Vietnamese. This feeling is captured well through the characters of Linh, Mr. Bao, Grandmother and even Annick.

If this is Tatjana Soli's first novel, I look forward to the rest of her output. This novel does not read like a first novel. There are some beautiful turns of phrase and crisp descriptions. The hell that is war is handled well - the descriptions of injury and death are well done as are the descriptions of humanity and life. She is also extremely well read and researched on her subject. I recommend this book for both book club and pleasure reading and have already passed copies to others. Buy the book. It is money well spent. ( )
1 vote ozzieslim | Dec 28, 2014 |
The Vietnam War was the single most turbulent issue during a period when we were dealing with subjects as important as civil rights, sexual freedom, and drug use. I turned eighteen in 1968, so this was my time. Vietnam was constantly on my mind, as it was with most Americans. I find books that cover this period fascinating.

The Lotus Eaters presents a side of the war that is apart from both the protestors and the warriors. It looks at the journalists, specifically at one photojournalist, Helen Adams. She goes to Vietnam because her brother died in the conflict. That tragedy drives her to learn more about the conflict and the specifics of his death.

Western women were rare among both the soldiers and the journalists, so Helen finds herself encountering sexism. She has to struggle for permission to go out with the troops due to concerns about bathroom facilities and the reactions of the soldiers in her proximity, among other things. When it turns out she has a knack for framing photos and finding the best shots, her photos catch on. Because she's a woman succeeding in a horrible situation, the story becomes about her as well as her subjects and because of this, doors are opened. So her gender presents both barriers and opportunities.

Once, when Helen came back to the states for a brief time, she encountered a young woman protesting the war. She called this woman “brave” in a way that made it clear she was using sarcasm. This section bothered me somewhat. Helen seemed very perceptive about the other people she encountered throughout the novel, especially the Vietnamese, but here she seemed to look down on the protestor. The woman's way of standing up for her beliefs didn't involve risking her life and therefore she wasn't as brave as the soldiers. This was the one section when Helen seemed arrogant. It made her more human which I suppose was the goal, but it made me like her less.

Helen has two love interests during the novel: Sam Darrow, a photojournalist who becomes her mentor as well as her lover, and Linh, a Vietnamese man who advances from assistant to photojournalist while falling in love with Helen. Having people who care about Helen gives the story its tension, but the real strength of this book is what it says about the war and the country. Here are some of Linh's thoughts late in the book which demonstrate this. (This was transcribed from the audio version, so it may have some differences from the actual text.)

During the last year all Linh saw was his country being destroyed, faster and faster, in larger and larger bites. He couldn't explain to Helen the sense of physical sickness it gave him, the sense of despair, the desperate idea that anything that stopped this destruction was better than its continuing. What she didn't understand was that both sides were willing to destroy the country to gain their own ends. Whose side was he on? Whoever's side saved men, women, animals, trees, grass, hillsides, and rice patties. The side that saved villages and children, that got rid of the poisons that lay in the earth. But he did not know whose side that was.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions ( )
  SteveLindahl | Dec 14, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 77 (next | show all)
Tatjana Soli’s haunting debut novel begins where it ought to end. In this quietly mesmerizing book about journalists covering the war in Vietnam, the first glimpses of the place are the most familiar. The year is 1975. Americans are in a state of panic as North Vietnamese forces prepare to occupy Saigon. The looters, the desperate efforts to escape this war zone, the mobs surrounding the United States Embassy, the overcrowded helicopters struggling to rise above the chaos: these images seem to introduce Ms. Soli’s readers to a story they already know.
"An impressive debut novel about a female photographer covering the Vietnam War...A visceral story about the powerful and complex bonds that war creates. It raises profound questions about professional and personal lives that are based on, and often dependent on, a nation’s horrific strife. Graphic but never gratuitous, the gripping, haunting narrative explores the complexity of violence, foreignness, even betrayal. Moving and memorable." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)
added by TatjanaSoli | editKirkus (Feb 1, 2010)
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For my mom,

who taught me about

brave girls crossing oceans
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The city teetered in a dream state.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312611579, Hardcover)

A unique and sweeping debut novel of an American female combat photographer in the Vietnam War, as she captures the wrenching chaos and finds herself torn between the love of two men. 

On a stifling day in 1975, the North Vietnamese army is poised to roll into Saigon. As the fall of the city begins, two lovers make their way through the streets to escape to a new life. Helen Adams, an American photojournalist, must take leave of a war she is addicted to and a devastated country she has come to love. Linh, the Vietnamese man who loves her, must grapple with his own conflicted loyalties of heart and homeland. As they race to leave, they play out a drama of devotion and betrayal that spins them back through twelve war-torn years, beginning in the splendor of Angkor Wat, with their mentor, larger-than-life war correspondent Sam Darrow, once Helen's infuriating love and fiercest competitor, and Linh's secret keeper, boss and truest friend.

Tatjana Soli paints a searing portrait of an American woman’s struggle and triumph in Vietnam, a stirring canvas contrasting the wrenching horror of war and the treacherous narcotic of obsession with the redemptive power of love. Readers will be transfixed by this stunning novel of passion, duty and ambition among the ruins of war.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:31:34 -0400)

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A novel that follows an American female combat photographer in the Vietnam War as she captures the wrenching chaos and finds herself torn between the love of two men.

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