Kirkus Reviews (review date 15 May 1997)

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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...

(The entire section contains 2351 words.)

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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 describe life in her native village, the last entries, her legacy to Mai, tell a darker and more complex story. Mai learns that her grandmother had been the landlord's concubine and he, not Baba Quan, was her grandfather; Baba Quan was actually a brutal, bitter man, and a Vietcong leader; moreover, her mother had been neglected by her intellectual husband and suffered many miscarriages. Convinced that she and the family have bad karma, Mai's mother acts—successfully—to free her daughter so that she may have a "different heritage, an unburdened past."

Heartfelt evocations of a different time and place aren't enough here to give vigor to a beautifully rendered but disappointingly lifeless story of the Vietnamese American experience.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 19 August 1997)

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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 written by her mother, Thanh, Ms Cao does a sensitive job of delineating the complicated relationship between a mother and a daughter, a relationship that has been turned upside down by their move to the United States. Back home in Saigon, Mai not only found comfort in "the solid geometry" of her mother's life, but also deferred to her politely like a model Confucian daughter. Here in the Virginia suburbs, Mai is the one who quickly masters the language; she is also the one who tells her mother what is "acceptable or unacceptable behavior"

In Saigon, Thanh would buy dozens of hummingbirds and canaries and release them in the garden to generate positive karma for the family. Here in America, such charming gestures, along with her belief in curses and countercurses, are rejected by her teen-age daughter as "bad fortune-cookie advice." Mai's impatience will turn to concern, however, when a stroke sends Thanh to the hospital, and Mai is forced to become her caretaker, overseeing her convalescence and guarding her fragile emotional health.

Their relationship is hardly the only thing to undergo a sea change. As Mai observes, many Vietnamese immigrants arrived in the United States without identification papers, and the lack of proper documentation has conferred on them the ability to invent themselves anew. Sometimes the changes are cosmetic ones, made for simple vanity's sake: a woman who doesn't like having been born in the Year of the Rat gives herself a new birthday in the Year of the Tiger when she applies for a Social Security card. Sometimes the changes are more fundamental: a bar girl who once worked in a nightclub frequented by American soldiers gives herself a new past as a virtuous Confucian teacher from a small village in a distant province.

"Here, in the vehemently anti-Vietcong refugee community," Ms. Cao writes, "draft dodgers and ordinary foot soldiers could become decorated veterans of battlefields as famous as Kontum and Pleiku and Xuan Loc. It was the Vietnamese version of the American Dream; a new spin, the Vietnam spin, to the old immigrant faith in the future."

Intent on shielding her daughter from the brute reality of her family's history, Thanh, too, has put a spin on her past. The story she tells Mai, the story she has presented to the world, is a fairy tale with a tragic ending: poor peasant girl is adopted by a rich landlord, sent to convent school and married off to a handsome intellectual. She leaves behind the green rice fields of the delta for a custard yellow house on a Saigon boulevard and gives birth to a beautiful baby girl.

It is only as the war escalates that Thanh's world begins to fall apart: after her husband suddenly dies in his sleep, Thanh decides to move the family to the United States. With the help of one of her husband's friends who is an American military officer, she sends Mai to the United States; she and her aged father, Baba Quan, will follow in a few months. The day they are to leave, however, something terrible happens: Baba Quan does not arrive at the appointed meeting place, and Thanh is forced to leave without him.

As Mai begins to look into her mother's past, she slowly discovers that this official version of their family's history conceals an even sadder, darker story—a story involving marital betrayal, political intrigue and coldblooded revenge. Although Ms. Cao's orchestration of these melodramatic revelations is far from fluent—incongruous developments and clumsy foreshadowings making us suspect that something is afoot long before we're supposed to—she more than makes up for this weakness with her authoritative and subtly nuanced delineation of character and place.

Mai, Thanh and their family and friends are rendered with fierce, unsentimental detail, and the disparate worlds they have called home—from the tiny villages of the Mekong Delta to the bustling streets of Saigon to the air-conditioned malls of Virginia—are made equally palpable to the reader. With Monkey Bridge, Ms. Cao has not only made an impressive debut, but also joined writers like Salman Rushdie and Bharati Mukherjee in mapping the state of exile and its elusive geography of loss and hope.

Judith Coburn (review date 14 September 1997)

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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 of his whereabouts. The American post-war fever of revenge prevents any telephone calls, mail or visits between the Americans and Vietnamese. A curtain of stars and stripes has fallen, and Baba Quan is all but dead to his daughter and granddaughter. And like other ghostly visitations recalled in the story, he hovers over Mai's and her mother's dream-life as if on a monkey bridge.

In America, the generation gap that inevitably opens up in immigrant families divides Mai and her mother. While her mother and her friends build Little Saigon into a sanctuary, Mai wants to be American, chattering in English, mastering the supermarket check-out line and hanging out in fast-food restaurants with new, non-Vietnamese friends. Cao movingly evokes the cultural gap between teenager Mai's bedazzlement at Safeway's air-conditioned efficiency and its produce embalmed in plastic and her mother's longing for the hustle, bustle and bargaining of Saigon's open-air markets. Mai, like most immigrant children, becomes the go-between, translating Vietnamese and American languages, customs and laws. The child becomes the parent and the parent the child, as everything new must be interpreted and explained.

As do all teenagers, Mai tries to put over what she can on the grown-ups, telling her mother that American custom requires students to go to college far from their families, "the equivalent of a martial artist leaving her village to study Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple or even Siddharta Gautama going away to seek enlightenment under the bo tree." She's too guilty to tell her mother that Little Saigon is a prison to her, not an oasis. In one of the book's most moving chapters, Mai brings her American friend Bobbie to watch a Vietnamese fortuneteller minister to a reverent crowd of her mother's friends. To the older refugees, the fortuneteller's prognostications are gold. But to Mai, who already has crossed over into the new world, it's just a fun scene.

In Cao's hands, there is sometimes a hilarious cast to these cross-cultural matings. When her mother is hospitalized with a stroke, Mai discovers that the older woman's favorite TV show is The Bionic Woman. It seems the character's Bionic ears remind Mai's mother of her own long ears, or the Buddha's, which droop halfway down the side of his face. Such ears are to the Vietnamese a sign of longevity and luck. But as for the program's actual plot, the teenager must translate:

The Bionic Woman had just finished rescuing a young girl, from drowning in a lake where she'd gone swimming against her mother's wishes. Once out of harm's way, Jaime made the girl promise she'd be more careful next time and listen to her mother.

Translation: the Bionic Woman rescued the girl from drowning in the lake, but commended her for her magnificent deed, since the girl had heroically jumped into the water to rescue a prized police dog.

"Where's the dog?" my mother would ask. "I don't see him."

"He's not there anymore, they took him to the vet."

Traditionalists, both Vietnamese and American, may bristle at such cultural mish-mashing. But Cao, one of the first Vietnamese American novelists to publish in English, shows, as do other immigrant writers before her, how the new Americans believe far more fervently in the American dream than do longtime citizens. Mai's mother and her friends may cling to their old language and their fortuneteller, but they're just as avid about the "possibility for rebirth, reinvention and other euphemisms for half-truths and outright lies" that starting over in America promises.

The novel's weaknesses oddly recapitulate the cost of the immigrants' protean approach to life in America. The novelist overreaches wildly, especially, at the end of the novel, where she attempts to condense Vietnamese history and the war with the Americans into a few hyperactive pages. After early chapters of lyrical and subtle writing, the novel rockets to a close with so many plot developments that it's more like a bodice-ripper than like literary fiction. The voice of the narrator, supposedly Mai's, is too knowing and literary to be a teenager's. And her mother's journal is too close to the narrator's densely metaphoric style to ring anything but false. There are patches of psychobabble and metaphors repeated so many times that the storyteller's spell is broken. Has becoming an American converted Cao to a culture in which big dams wash out fragile monkey bridges?

But then, even in the unconvincing mother's journal, there are insights: "Why do children resemble their parents?… In my daughter's reasoning, it is a fact, intangible but scientific, that the child can inherit the fact of the parent, but not the parent's karmic history…. Yet karma, my child, is nothing more than an ethical, spiritual chromosome, an amalgam of parent and child, which is as much a part of our history as DNA strands. There is no escaping it, the fact of mother and child, as synchronous and inseparable as left and right, up and down, back and front, sun and moon."

Such writing makes the reader look forward to Cao's next novel.

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