A man tells the narrator that she is more beautiful now that she is old and her face is ruined than she had been as a young woman. While thinking about this unusual comment, the narrator begins to remember her unhappy family and her scandalous first love affair. Abruptly she changes in age. No longer an old woman, she is once again fifteen and a half, riding a ferry across the Mekong River in what was then French Indochina.
As a girl, she attends both the state boarding school in Saigon and a French high school because her mother is ambitious for her future. All of the family’s hopes and chances for success depend on her; she has two brothers, but, unfortunately, both are unreliable. The older brother is a drug addict who steals from his own family and has such a negative effect on his two siblings that his parents eventually send him back to France. The younger brother has a different problem: He is simply too sensitive and weak to achieve worldly success.
Telling her story, the narrator shifts fluidly between the present and the past, referring to old photographs and memories as though she is thumbing through a family album. In one photo of her, taken when she was still a fifteen-year-old virgin, she has the face of a sexually experienced woman. In another memory, she recalls a favorite outfit that also makes her appear prematurely worldly; she is wearing it on the day she meets the young Chinese man who becomes her first lover.
When she was very young, she knew that she wanted to be a writer, but her mother discouraged her. A math degree would be much more practical for a girl who was going to have to support her family. She earns an income, however, in a way that her mother had not foreseen. She becomes essentially a prostitute, accepting money from her lover in return for sleeping with him.
Although her lover is older and wealthier, and has had many sexual experiences, her power over him is far greater than his over her. She feels intense sexual desire for him, but no love. He, on the other hand, genuinely loves her, and he is acutely aware that his feelings are not matched by hers. She revels in her ability to give less to him than she...
(The entire section is 895 words.)