Bich Minh Nguyen's affecting first novel concerns the enlightenment of two Vietnamese-American sisters. The carefree, twentysomething Linh Luong seeks work in Chicago "that didn't make her feel like she was simply settling or avoiding." Van Luong, her older sister, practices immigration law. During the several months in which the book's central events occur, the sisters, longtime rivals, grow closer when Linh, "Linny," confides that she has a married lover and Van an overbearing, distant husband. Their dilemmas provide the framework for larger concerns, among them how to remain true to their family, community and ethnic heritage when American life pulls the opposite way.
After his wife's death, Dinh Luong, their inventor-father, withdraws even more from the daughters. Using "silence as a weapon of control," he spends his days perfecting contraptions such as the "Luong Arm," which he hopes will enable short people, including his daughters, to negotiate better in a nation of tall Americans. With the invention, one can reach higher on shelves to retrieve items.
To make up for their size -- a metaphor for the insecurities the daughters develop as first-generation Vietnamese-Americans -- Linny has sought the company of non-Asians in high school and afterward, whereas Van has avoided socializing in favor of studying, in hopes of pleasing her father. "Perhaps feeling inadequate went with the territory -- had become the territory -- when her parents crossed from Vietnam to America," she thinks. The dreamer-father himself mitigates his feelings of inferiority by winning an audition to a reality TV show that may or may not be produced.
When she was alive, Mrs. Luong seemed the most settled. While the obsessive Dinh Luong "invented products as a way to invent himself in a new land," Thuy Luong, dead several years now, came to accept life in America. Her contentment derived from feeling connected, rooted, to places she loved, whether Saigon, where "she had known all of her neighbors," or western Michigan, where she marveled at the reaches of the evening sky during the blue hour at dusk. The impermanence of l'heure bleue increased her resolve to find the joy she could in life. "It wasn't night her mother craved," Van recalls, "it was the slow countdown, the space of half-light no one could ever keep."
By recalling her resilience as they work through their problems, the sisters learn not only who they are, but where geographically, psychologically and emotionally they belong. Both are richer for their mother's example, strengthened by it, while regretting they did not listen to her more closely when they were young. Bich Minh Nguyen's lovely, loving tale of Midwestern immigrant life is finally a deeply American book about place and placelessness.
Anthony Bukoski's most recent short-story collections are "North of the Port" and "Twelve Below Zero: New and Expanded Edition." He lives and teaches in Superior, Wis.