As part of our Spotlight on #OwnVoices, we will feature books not published in the last year on Throwback Thursday. Today Sam looks at a novel published last year.
Thanhhà Lai. HarperCollins, 2015. 272 pages. 9780062229182. Click here to purchase this book.
Mai can’t believe her parents are making her go to their native Vietnam for the summer. A California girl through and through, Mai would rather be on the beach with her best friend Montana, hoping for a glimpse of HIM (the boy Mai is crushing on). But instead, Mai’s dad (Dr. Do-Gooder, as she calls him) sets up “a one-man surgical clinic” to treat kids in remote villages; Mai gets dragged along as a companion to her grandmother, Bà, who is embarking on one last search for her long missing-in-action husband Ông, Mai’s grandfather. But Mai just wants to get the trip over with already: “I get that my preteen anxieties can’t compete with Bà’s classic suffering. After all, she lost her husband in THE WAR, which I always think of in all caps. Still, selfish or not, I’m going home as soon as I can maneuver around the sad saga of Bà.”
Mai is a hard character to love at first, seemingly as egocentric and shallow a 12-year old as you could find. But she undergoes a transformation of sorts while in Vietnam: she listens to relatives speak, slowly learns the language, and develops an understanding and appreciation of the culture; she becomes friends with Út, the polar opposite of girly-girl Montana, and translator Anh Minh, who speaks English with a Texan accent; and finally, through her love for Bà, Mai shows heart that has been there all along, hidden under the snarky, Facebook-checking tween veneer.
After winning the National Book Award and a Newbery Honor for her debut novel-in-verse Inside Out & Back Again, it wasn’t as if Lai was going to sneak up on us. But what did surprise me was how funny her follow-up is. (Chapter 13, I’m looking at you. Without getting too spoiler-y, it involves thong-related confusion.) Mai’s narrative voice is hilarious, authentic, and maddening in equal measure. (Speaking of voice, I highly recommend the audiobook, expertly narrated by Lulu Lam—she gets Lai’s mix of sarcastic wit and poignantly beautiful prose just right.)
It’s a rare thing for an author to knock it out of the park on her first two books. I know I’m but one of many who can’t wait for Thanhhà Lai’s next release.
Reviewed by Sam Bloom