Every once in a rare while a book comes along that sweeps your emotions away and you are never the same after it. Glimpses of emotions and snippets of dialogue arise in your mind at odd times of the day to remind you how much you loved your experience of the book.
Tran Ngọc Mỹ (Esmeralda “Esme” Tran) is a poor country girl supporting a family of four consisting of her grandmother, mother, and daughter by cleaning toilets and hotel rooms in Hồ Chí Minh, Việt Nam. It is there that she is approached by Khἀi’s mother to consider living with him in California in order to get to know him better and marry him. To this young girl, a teenage mom born to a teenage mom, a life in America is a dream come true and very scary at the same time — it will take her away from everything she knows and the daughter who is her heart across an ocean to an unknown destiny that is fraught with peril. And yet, for her daughter’s future, she has to give this American man a chance to see if they are compatible.
How many friends have I seen communicating in dual languages with their immigrant parents? Each speaking their own language and never fully comprehending the other — but oh, the love and the loyalty and the respect between them is unparalleled. It has Diệp Khἀi agreeing to let a woman he doesn’t know to stay in his house for the summer sight-unseen because his mother says so.
Arranged marriages are not uncommon in Asia, so this aspect of the story felt very much in keeping with their culture. Esme and Khἀi’s mothers aren’t making them marry, but rather, they are arranging matters so Esme and Khἀi can meet each other to see if they are compatible and interested in getting married.
I have never laughed so much reading a book as I did the first two-thirds of this book. Khἀi’s continual feeling of WTF where his mother and Esme are considered is as endearing as it is hilarious. His Vietnamese-American outlook to life and their socio-cultural background from Việt Nam make for many “ships crossing in the night” interactions between them. Both Esme and Khἀi feel that the other is stranger than they are, but to the reader, they are both wonderful and resilient and accepting of their situation and each other.
Khἀi’s generosity towards Esme of his time, his house, and even the space to grow into her own without hemming her in allows her to experience America on her own terms. Esme shows great sensitivity in guarding Khἀi’s sensory needs. She speaks only in Vietnamese with him because for one, she doesn’t want to inflict her non-fluent English on him, but also because it is only in Vietnamese that she is grounded in her soul and she wants to connect with Khἀi at a deeper level that English would not allow her to.
The essence of the story is the last third of the book. It is utterly heartbreaking.
Khἀi’s struggles to understand and internalize what his feelings should be and what his feelings are are excruciating.
“I. Don’t. Love. Her,” he gritted out. Why did people keep pushing him on this? It wasn’t like he enjoyed saying he didn’t love her. He wanted to love her. He just … didn’t.
A traumatic incident in his childhood had convinced him that because he is autistic, it means he cannot feel love or grief and that he has a heart of stone, he is defective. It is only with the enormous care and sensitivity of his older brother that he understands that he can care, that he does care – in fact, he cares and hurts too much for his brain to process and as a result, his brain and even his body shut down. Watching him wrestle with “can I love?” and “am I lovable just as I am?” and finally comprehending that he can and is is agonizing for the reader.
Equally painful are Esme’s struggles with low self-esteem. She cannot believe that a successful, confident man with stunning good looks would look twice at a poor, uneducated girl who used to clean toilets.
How did you change your life when you were trapped like this? Her history didn’t define her. Her origins didn’t define her. At least, they shouldn’t. She could be more, if she had a chance.
Even as Esme’s heart is breaking because Khἀi unequivocally states that he does not and cannot love her, she is determined to forge ahead and carve out a life for herself and her daughter by educating herself. Learning and knowledge have the power to make her see that she has value and that she deserves more in life.
This reminds me of the song from the movie Yentl: “Each step I take / Papa, I’ve a voice now! / Each page I turn / Papa, I’ve a choice now!”
Esme’s journey into empowerment is one all young girls should read about.
Khἀi and Esme’s HEA is hard-fought-for and heartrending for all the emotional difficulties they face getting there. Em yêu anh yêu em (Girl loves boy loves girl) — this is what this story is about on the surface but how Hoang paints the complex landscape and the details with broad brushes and fine ones is what makes it a masterpiece.