The Reeducation of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan (Review)

The Reeducation of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan was one of those books that I ordinarily would never pick up, but I ended up reading it because a friend gave it a strong recommendation. It’s the story of a Vietnamese American family that immigrates to France and the United States. The central character, Cherry Truong, is a young Asian American student who goes to Vietnam in order to search for her brother, who has been exiled for bad behavior by his parents.

This book surprised me. First, it was written in fairly easy, uncomplicated, straight-forward language, much like Nell Freudenberger’s book. I think readers will appreciate this. Like Freudenberger’s book, Cherry Truong also had a complex plot that keeps the reader turning the pages. I found the characters’ dialogue a bit unnatural at times, especially around plot twists, but Phan still managed to keep this reader moving forward. I was also surprised and impressed by the level of detail. The story is written from various time periods of the family members’ life, and although it got complicated at times, Phan manages the details well, bringing the characters to life with their recollections, prejudices, and histories. (There’s a family chart at the beginning of the book. I referred to it quite often, as I occasionally stumbled on the Vietnamese names.)

There were a number of female portrayals that were really good. Kim-Ly, for example, was a remarkable portrayal. The realistic details of a calculating old grandmother with her fingers tightly around the family’s purse-strings was amazing. The character really came alive. It was especially interesting to see her develop as a character against the very real backdrop of sexism in traditional culture.

If I had any criticism of this book, it was that the Asian male characters were a bit weak. They lacked the realistic temperamental violence of refugees that you might read in, for example, Lac Su’s I Love Yous Are for White People, where you really get the feeling that Lac’s father is ready to kill someone. The second most important character in this book, Lum, was basically the exact same character as Matt from Girl in Translation or Unu from Free Food For Millionaires: the stubborn-but-good-hearted Asian male who somehow can’t convince the reader that he’s human.

Overall, I’d recommend this book. I found myself marveling over the way in which Phan tells a complex story while giving all of her characters complete backgrounds. I think this was my first foray into Vietnamese American literature, which is funny because I’ve heard many real-life Vietnamese histories. Check this book out.

3 thoughts on “The Reeducation of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan (Review)

  1. I thought Lum was a very well-written character. He’s flawed and makes mistakes, but the love he displays for his sister redeems him.

    Also, with regard to “realistic temperamental violence of refugees,” isn’t that a bit of a stereotype? You’re not faulting Phan for writing three-dimensional characters that perform beyond stereotypes, are you? Even so, there’s a difference in perspectives between Su, a male observer, and Phan, a female observer. That could explain why Phan’s writing of the tales have a different focus. For example, the States-side grandmother, Kim-Ly was phenomenally well characterized. The tension, love-hate dynamics, and competition of the sisters were also really well characterized, which you don’t see so much of in, say, Su’s writings for no other reason than a difference in focus, probably attributable to gender.

    For folks interested in an introduction to Vietnamese American literature, I might recommend Phan’s book over Truong’s THE BOOK OF SALT, Cao’s MONKEY BRIDGE, or that memoir CATFISH AND MANDALA, or Le’s THE GANGSTER WE ARE ALL LOOKING FOR. In fact, I’m surprised that REEDUCATION hasn’t received more acclaim and attention.

  2. TZ,

    I have to admit that I haven’t read any of those other works. :) I did think that this book was good.

    Kim-Ly was a remarkable portrayal. I probably should’ve said this in the post above. Actually…okay, I just added it. Your review of my review got me to add more! I really should’ve put that in the first time.

    I think my issue with the Asian American male portrayals is that books I referenced seem (to me, anyway) to have Asian men who are either:

    a) Somewhat flat, stereotypes, or
    b) Women who are portrayed as men

    There’s something about being an Asian man in American society that just didn’t come out–and I think this is different for Asian men vs. White men, as well as different for Asian men vs. Asian women. I like the portrayals in the books I’ve read by Naomi Hirahara, Leonard Chang, Ed Lin, Jamie Ford and Yiyun Li, among others. (although to be fair, Yiyun Li’s male characters mostly live in China.) It’s hard to put my finger on it, but even among Asian men who happen to be effeminate (and there’s nothing wrong with this), there’s often some kind of male (not just Asian male) yang that exists, which is why I referenced Lac Su.

  3. Now I just can’t stop commenting–you’re definitely right, though. It’s the focus. It’s arguable that the female portrayals are not as deep in some of those other works I mentioned.

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