Author: Camilla Gibb
Genre: Fiction (Historical / Contemporary / Vietnam)
Publisher/Publication Date: The Penguin Press (March 17, 2011)
Source: TLC Book Tours
Rating: Big ole swoony love.
Did I finish?: Yes -- in one sitting. I couldn't stop.
One-sentence summary: Three lives unfold around an soup seller in Vietnam.
Reading Challenges: Historical Fiction, South Asian
Do I like the cover?: Yes, but -- in the novel, there's a discussion about how the pastoral art featuring Vietnamese countrysides really whitewashes what modern Vietnam is like -- so it seems like a missed opportunity by not featuring something more urban.
I'm reminded of...: Diana Abu-Jaber, Anne Carson, Barbara Kingsolver, Jhumpa Lahiri
First line: Old Man H'ung makes the best pho in the city and has done so for decades.
Did...I read this in five hours flat?: YES. I started it Sunday morning and finished it by Sunday evening, pausing only to meditate on a line or read a passage to my wife.
Did...I grow kind of desperate for pho while reading this novel?: YES. Find a local Vietnamese restaurant when you start so you can savor the broth and noodles, too!
Why did I get this book?: Ever since Graham Green's The Quiet American, I've been interested in '50s Vietnam and I'm a sucker for food as character.
Review: The best books are those that can take a topic or plot that is alien to you and yet make you feel yourself in the story. Initially I wasn't swooning with excitement about this book -- interested, yes, but nothing fancier than that -- and yet, by the second chapter, I was captivated.
I often found myself stopping to read passages to my wife so we could both savor the lovely language or interesting insight about Vietnam. There's a prose-poem feel at times -- the contemporary sections are in present tense, the revolutionary sections in past tense -- but the writing isn't obtuse or florid or aloof. I loved all the characters and cared about each story. The novel moves back and forth between the present (2007ish, I believe) and the past (1950s and '60s) seamlessly, and like Hung's delicately flavored broths, the story reveals more and more in delicious, tasty layers.
Don't let an unfamiliarity with Vietnam dissuade you from reading this book: ultimately, all you need to know is presented in the story. The conflicts and joys shared by the characters are easy to relate to and emphasize with and the historical events are given enough context to be meaningful. I found it impossible not to be sucked into this lovely, evocative, moving novel.
For another entry, please stop by on Monday for my Q and A with the author, Camilla Gibb and leave a comment there. Open to US and international readers! Contest ends April 9. UPDATE: The publisher is offering a copy as well, so I've got an additional copy to give to US/CA readers!
For other reviews, check out the rest of the blogs on the tour.