With all the books I've been bashing lately, I was starting to feel like it was just me, that my terrible reviews weren't a reflection of the books, but symptoms of a more encompassing negative outlook. But I loved this book. LOVED it. (So maybe in disproving this theory it means I'm okay after all...)
Van and her sister Linny are smart, troubled and leading very different lives in the Michigan/Illinois area. Van, a self-doubting but brilliant immigration lawyer, is living in "The Perfect House" in the suburbs, where everything about the house --down to the "carefully chosen jazz music" has been selected by her husband. Linny is dating a married man and feeling unsettled with her life managing a make-ahead meal business. Their widowed father has been perfecting his beloved invention, the Luong Arm, an extendable grabber tool, since the girls were young.
It would be easy to say that the action gets rolling when Linny spots Van's husband in a bar with another woman, but the truth is that life is more complex than that. Each character is struggling in her/his own way, and Nguyen is empathetic but fair when looking at the complications of aging, relying on one's family, forging one's identity and feeling satisfied with oneself.
Upon Van discovering that her fiance Miles kept pictures of his previous girlfriends hung in the house:
p. 39: "She knew, by then, that in order to keep him she would have to sweep away what bothered her. And she did want to keep him. She wanted, with a fierceness that daily rebloomed, to have what the other women could only eye, or remember, from afar."
p. 43: "When Van and Miles moved into their house, the framed women disappeared along with Julie's black and whites. Grateful for his silent tact, Van took it as a sign of how well Miles understood her. How much he truly did love her. She was glad she had suppressed the urge to throw away the photos or say something about them. Now that she and Miles were married it was all worth it. Like a strange hazing she had survived."
p. 183: "There's a core insecurity about you, Miles had told her once. This was weeks before their wedding, when a sentence like that could both shatter Van and make her determined to be the opposite. I'm not criticizing, he added. I'm just curious about where it comes from. Van didn't say what she really thought: Didn't he think she'd tried to figure that out a thousand times already? She'd blamed her height, and being Asian in a mostly white, conservative town in the Midwest, and sometimes called it shyness coded into her genes. Van had never explained to Miles, or to anyone, how exhausting it was to work against the sense of inadequacy that arose whenever she felt on display--whether it was on the Model UN team or in the courtroom. [...]She knew well that secret feeling of being tucked away, unseen."