For immigration lawyer Van, life takes a spin after her husband announces unceremoniously, “I don’t want to live with you anymore.” She’s spent a long time feeling settled, comfortable and, in her words, “chosen” by Miles Oh, a successful, charismatic and handsome Asian-American who exudes a confidence and poise that Van herself has never felt. Losing him, as she does on page one, is like losing a limb.
Off in Chicago, Van’s younger sister Linny Luong has troubles of her own — namely the clandestine affair she’s conducting with Gary, a paunchy married man, and the unfulfilling job she holds at You Did It Dinners, a firm that requires her to cook copious amounts of food for other people’s families. At 27 and without a college degree, Linny struggles to find a purpose: something that would pull her up from the muck and introduce her to new experiences, a new life.
Though close in age and raised in the same household, Van and Linny remain estranged as adults — tied only to their aging father, a man caught up in his inventions for short people. Dinh and Thuy Luong arrived from Vietnam in the 1970s, settling in Michigan and raising their daughters to believe they’d have to work hard to excel in America — a land of opportunity . . . and very tall people. All small of stature, the Luongs had to set themselves apart to avoid being overlooked in a land where everyone literally towered over them. While the girls’ mother retreated into herself, staying invisible as a seamstress, Dinh worked on his projects — including the Luong Arm, designed to help short people reach items on tall shelves.
Dinh has only become more obsessed with his work since his wife’s death nine years prior. Once just a hobby, the Luong Arm — and other products of Luong Inventions — have consumed all of their father’s attention. When the sisters are called back to Wrightville, Mich., for their father’s naturalization ceremony, they must finally confront the feelings they have for one another — and their strained upbringing — all while dealing with their own crumbling relationships.
Bich Minh Nguyen’s Short Girls is an interesting, perceptive look at life for the daughters of two immigrants. While Linny bucked against their traditional Vietnamese upbringing, wearing colorful clothing, making many friends and acting “like a white girl,” Van folded in on herself — studying constantly; applying to law school; blending in as best she could in small-town Michigan. The juxtaposition of the two girls was fascinating, and I loved that neither was a complete cliche.
Though I enjoyed the characters and the fact that most defied stereotypes, the novel’s strength lies in the way it conveys the immigrant experience — both for the Luongs, who arrived decades before, and present-day immigrants in a post-9/11 world. As an immigration lawyer, Van works tirelessly as an advocate for the frightened people who arrived in the U.S. without friends or family, looking timidly at locals who bark at them to “speak English.” I’ve always considered myself an open-minded and tolerant person, and reading about the way some of Van’s clients had been treated was painful. I can only imagine how terrifying it would be to be dropped in a foreign country with only a dream of a better life — and no idea how to actually make it happen.
The relationship between Van and Linny is at the heart of the story, though the book is very much about their parents’ marriage, too. There’s no sugar-coating the fact that Dinh is not a pathetic, old widower; though he once loved his wife, they occupied separate parts of the same home prior to her death. Van comments that her mother often used her girls as a shield or a bartering chip, pulling them further away from their reticent father — a man who, they’re forced to admit, they barely know. They don’t have conversations; they don’t know his thoughts. Arriving home on the occasion of their father’s citizenship, Van and Linny feel like strangers.
Short Girls is not an action-packed or fluid story. A better part of this quiet novel deals with the breakdown of Van’s marriage to a man she, too, barely knew. Every character in Nguyen’s novel seems to be kept at arm’s distance — from one another; from themselves. No one is held close. Everyone is a stranger.
But somehow, it still worked for me. My heart caught as Van came to grips with her impending divorce; I wanted to reach out and help Linny in the kitchen, where she worked to prepare traditional Vietnamese meals for her thankless father. Even Mr. Luong was somehow endearing, despite the fact that he withheld approval for his daughters. By the close of the book, I cared about these people. And though not much happens or is accomplished in Short Girls, that’s still what I ask for in a book.
Fans of literary fiction who enjoy stories on family dynamics, sisters or the immigrant experience might enjoy this one. Though it didn’t move me to tears or provoke any action on my part, I enjoyed Van and Linny’s story — and the positive, uplifting note on which the book closes.
3.5 out of 5!