Lan Cao Monkey Bridge
Cao is a Vietnamese-American nonfiction writer, novelist, and professor of law.
Monkey Bridge (1997), Cao's first novel, tells the story of a Vietnamese mother and daughter who leave their homeland shortly after the Vietnam War to immigrate to the United States, where they confront a clash of cultures and generations, as well as secrets from their own family's past. Thirteen-year-old Mai arrives in the United States in 1975, followed shortly afterward by her mother, Thanh, and the two settle in an area heavily populated by other Vietnamese outside Washington, D.C., known as "Little Saigon." Mai quickly adjusts to American life, learning English and adopting American social conventions, but she is at once embarrassed and amused by her mother's difficulty assimilating, and feels herself acutely torn between the two worlds. Not long after their arrival, Mai discovers that mystery surrounds her missing father and grandfather, and that her mother is somehow haunted by the past. While Mai is the primary narrator of Monkey Bridge, Cao uses the device of a diary within the text to tell the story of Mai's mother, who records not only her confusion and apprehension about her new country, but also painful details about the family's past. Cao herself immigrated to the United States from Vietnam in 1975 and now teaches international law at Brooklyn Law School. In 1996 she published Everything You Need to Know about Asian-American History with Himilee Novas. With Monkey Bridge, Cao is one of the only Vietnamese-Americans to explore the war—called the "American War" by the Vietnamese—and the ensuing immigrant experience in fiction. Critics have almost unanimously praised Cao's evocation of the Vietnamese landscape and culture as well as her depiction of the simultaneous feelings of alienation and hope experienced by immigrants to the United States. Many reviewers have been less enthusiastic about Cao's narrative structure and plot development, finding her use of two narrators—Mai and her mother in the diary—awkward. Nevertheless, Monkey Bridge is considered an important contribution to both Vietnam War literature and immigrant literature, giving voice to a little-explored part of one of America's most painful historical events.
SOURCE: A review of Monkey Bridge, in Kirkus Reviews, May 15, 1997, p. 736.
[The following review provides a mixed opinion of Monkey Bridge, noting that Cao's evocation of pre-war Vietnam is beautifully written, but finding her plot "lifeless."]
A wonderfully written but unengaging first novel about a young Vietnamese refugee who, in 1975, is airlifted from Saigon and only later learns of her family's dark past.
Mai, whose family befriended Michael MacMahon, an American Colonel in Saigon, comes to the States as a 13-year-old. After staying with the MacMahons for six months, she moves to Washington, D.C., joined there by her widowed mother. The two make their home in "Little Saigon," the years pass, Mai is soon fluent in English, and though mindful of her past—she nostalgically recalls traditional myths and customs—she adjusts to the new country. Her mother doesn't, though, and a bad fall, followed by a disabling stroke, seems to push her even further into the past. Mai hears her talk fretfully in her sleep of her father, Baba Quan, who was to accompany her to the US but never arrived at the agreed-upon rendezvous. Mai tries to contact him, but her mother is curiously discouraging. As Mai prepares to go to college, her mother seems happier, but the secret letters Mai finds her writing are less cheerful. While the letters at first retell old legends and beliefs and...
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SOURCE: "The American Dream with a Vietnamese Twist," in The New York Times, August 19, 1997, p. C13.
[In the following review, Kakutani writes that Cao's development of her characters and evocation of time and place "more than make up for" weaknesses in her plot.]
"My dilemma," says Mai, the narrator of Lan Cao's affecting first novel, "was that, seeing both sides to everything, I belonged to neither." Mai lives at once in the past and the present, haunted by the memories of her Vietnamese youth and determined at the same time to create a new life for herself in America. On one hand, she shares the immigrant fears of her mother; on the other, she shares the shiny teen-age dreams of her friends—college, a career, hanging out at the mall.
In Monkey Bridge, Ms. Cao, who left Vietnam in 1975 and now teaches international law at the Brooklyn Law School, tells the story of a family fractured by the Vietnam War (or, as the Vietnamese call it, the American war) It is a story about immigrants grappling with the mind-boggling possibilities and confusions of American life, reinventing themselves as they go along. But is also a story about the collision of public events and private lives, and the devastating consequences of cultural and emotional dislocation on the members of a single family.
Moving back and forth between Mai's first-person reminiscences and journals...
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SOURCE: "Starting Over," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 14, 1997, p. 10.
[In the following review, Coburn praises Cao's insightful and at times lyrical writing, despite the flaws she finds in the plot.]
A monkey bridge—three bamboo stalks lashed with vines—figures in two of this novel's turning points. Apparitions: A man first sees his wife-to-be in white silk fluttering above him on such a bridge; a trapped American Marine glimpses through the mist the figure of a Vietnamese friend floating above a minefield and signaling the way out of the lethal maze.
In Monkey Bridge, the first novel by Vietnamese American writer Lan Cao, Vietnamese refugees, the relatives they left behind and the Americans they meet reach for each other across just such a simple and magical connection.
It's the late 1970s, and teenager Mai Nguyen has been settled in northern Virginia with her mother since fleeing Vietnam in 1975 during the fall of Saigon. They live in what the refugees call "Little Saigon" where they can talk, eat and shop Vietnamese under the watchful eyes of their own fortunetellers. Just like the old country.
But it wasn't a clean getaway; it never is. Family, friends and the native land still haunt them. Somehow, in the rush to escape from Vietnam, Mai's grandfather Baba Quan didn't make the rendezvous point, and there's been no word...
(The entire section is 1067 words.)