Thursday, May 27, 2010

Short Girls: a novel

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."


Titianlibrarian said...

p. 33: "All her life with him she had been eager to get home. Every party, every social gathering, every going out was just a working toward the close of the evening. Van loved nothing more than the departure from a party, and Miles's old-fashioned insistence on helping her with her jacket. It was satisfying to know how each night would end: just the two of them, Van ushered out in the crook of his arm.

At home, his steps were gentle on the hardwood floors. His suits were a slim gabardine. He walked to the kitchen and called out to her--did she want a glass of wine? In the living room Van would clasp her hands together, wanting the whole day or night to pour into their house, where no one else had ever lived. She liked reminding herself that it was hers. That the history of the house began with them. Van touched the eggshell walls and thought, what more could be wanted?"

Titianlibrarian said...

p. 45: "She never got over feeling that she was being tested whenever he asked her to make a choice. [...] When at last Van touched the slim cabinet pulls done in satin stainless steel, Miles beamed. 'Exactly what I was thinking,' he approved."

Titianlibrarian said...

p. 266: "'I don't want it.' She said the words loudly, before realizing them, before understanding their truth: she didn't want the house. It had never truly been hers. 'I don't want the furniture either. I don't even like most of it. It's all evidence of your trying to make up your mind.'"

Titianlibrarian said...

p. 270-271: "Had it been two months ago, or even two weeks ago, she might have listened for him to leave. She might have peeked out the window to watch him drive off. She might have cried. She might have thought, too late, of all the things she could have said to him, all the accusations. You always kept me guessing. You kept me worrying about what you would think of me. All of these words that were and were not her own. They were scripts she had picked up, cues from actresses with sturdily waved hair. For how else was Van going to know how to behave? Why else had she watched television and read all those library books in the first place, those growing-up years? Didn't everyone watch and read, keep their eyes open, in order to know how to be?
Yet if there was one thing Miles had shown her over and over it was that definitions were malleable. Meaning Van alone could not determine the weight of a sentence. Whatever words she tossed into the air were words Miles could transform. He might say, I'm not responsible for your insecurity. You need to be stronger in yourself. Their relationship, after all, had begun from Miles, spun out of his invitation. Van had accepted. She hadn't questioned. Maybe it was fitting that now she would have to work her own transformation on words."