The Reeducation of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan

Aimee Phan was born and raised in Orange County, California.  She teaches writing and literature at the California College of the Arts.

Her novel, The Reeducation of Cherry Truong (St. Martins Press, 368 pp., $25.99), starts with a Prologue set in 2011. In it, the reader is introduced to Cherry, who is about to start training to be a doctor, and to her brother Lum, who has been banished to Vietnam, where he is involved in construction work. Cherry has recovered from a serious accident that left her scarred;  Lum was sent way by his family.

The author of this physical, detail-rich novel finds plenty of words to describe furniture and flower arrangements and the like. But she chooses to not immediately reveal what Cherry’s accident consisted of, nor what Lum did to cause his banishment to Vietnam.

Cherry postpones her medical school so she can go to Vietnam to visit Lum and others of her family who remained there. She extends her stay in Vietnam, which angers her mother back in America.

I have a problem with novels in which the authors deliberately withhold information from their readers to build suspense. Another aspect of the novel that posed a problem was the jumping chronology. On page 26, the novel jumps back in time to 1979. To Malaysia. My head spins. What now?

The strong point of the novel is that the Vietnamese diaspora is examined and presented in minute detail through the lives of the characters.  Some of them do not survive, some barely survive, others go crazy. Some return to Vietnam, and others do very well in America or in France.

This is a novel filled with foreboding and with detailed descriptions of how the characters breath.  Such as: “Duyen deeply inhaled and exhaled before answering.”

Most of the male characters are not as fully and richly developed as the female characters are. The scrambled chronology does produce some meaningful juxtapositions, but this reader was often confused. One of the main characters in the novel says, “Noble values could be learned growing up in constant fear of poverty, hunger and a corrupt government.”

I guess the same thing could be said about a novel reader. The more difficult and demanding the novel, the more the reader learns. Still, I would have liked to be entertained more.

—David Willson

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