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.