A multigenerational tale that weaves together the lives of three sisters and their many daughters, The Fortunes of Jaded Women is truly a love letter to Vietnamese women, families, and communities in the diaspora.
Reading this novel reminded me of what it’s like to meet a big Vietnamese family for the first time at a big family party, tons of shoes in the entryway and all. There are so many ways to get disoriented and lost in the chaos, but Huynh deftly guides us through the party as we watch the women attempt to search for meaning across generations and in their relationships with each other. As in any large Vietnamese family, there are siblings and cousins who spend their childhoods finding refuge in each other but grow up to be completely different and, in many ways, become strangers to one another. Huynh has a remarkable way of getting the most out of each chapter; even though we only really get a few moments with many characters in the book, there’s still something grounding about each that we can remember them by: eldest daughter Priscilla and her internal rage at her external silence, only-child Joyce and her desire to live the fantasy of a Korean drama, youngest sister Mrs. Lam and her not-quite-irrational fear of dying alone.
I love that Fortunes centers the lives of Vietnamese women and grants them the complexity of emotion that is so often denied. As many have observed and written, Vietnamese women, in popular culture and media alike, are boiled down to victims in need of rescue or sexual objects to be desired. They are enlisted to perform as grateful subjects or supplementary characters in narratives of war. Huynh urges us to listen to Vietnamese women’s stories, as she gives us a glimpse into each character’s fears, insecurities, and interior lives. In an especially moving passage, one character, Ly, mourns for her mother’s passing:
War had just broken out between the north and the south, there were rumors of the United States intervening, and her father was gone. She was unsure which side he was fighting for, or if he was even alive, because she couldn’t remember if the north or south were for or against communism, and which side was right and which side wasn’t. All she knew was that imperialism was bad, but isn’t that what both sides were fighting against? But she didn’t care about any of it anymore because she had just become an orphan. She didn’t have to pick a side because she had nobody to fight for.
In these moments, Huynh beautifully centers the cursed Duong family, in a way so clear that we can feel the grief. We are here in the diaspora because of war, yes. But the things we fight for? It is more complex than picking countries, north or south, colonizers and liberators. It is not simply about choosing a side. Ly is filled with grief for her mother’s passing, and that is important enough to document. This granting of complexity is necessary, as Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen writes in Memory is Another Country, to redress “silence” across women in the Vietnamese diaspora and reveal them to be “custodians, interpreters, and archivists of Vietnamese diasporic histories.” In Fortunes, they are, as the book’s editor Loan Le describes, everything: angry, loud, funny, quiet, depressed, caring, crying, bursting with love. Any emotion you can think of, it’s there! But perhaps…
One thing I longed to see in the novel was what happens when a daughter chooses not to return home. The first half of the book carefully reveals the countless fractured relationships between mothers and daughters. The narrative is familiar to many, in and outside of the Vietnamese diaspora, I’m sure: controlling mothers who see their daughters as second chances at themselves, daughters who grow older and don’t return the calls. And through each character’s perspective, we see the desire to connect but the difficulty in setting aside their pride. But, is it pride? Sure, pride might mask love, the desire for the next generation to live a better life, but that care isn’t always there. As literary scholar Erin Khuê Ninh has described, Asian American immigrant families are not immune to the violence of capitalism, and I kind of liked how Fortunes began by normalizing the distance between mothers and daughters; not pathologizing them, but demonstrating that sometimes we need those boundaries to survive. However, by the end of the novel, everyone is reunited and loose ends are tied. Each daughter returns home. This is the tale often told: that generational conflict is because of difference and miscommunication, not a centering of a mother’s calculation of her daughter’s ROI. And perhaps, even if that is true, must we expect each daughter to come home? Do we have to center the family, always? Can we only heal together as a family? The novel seems to say yes, but I think otherwise. We can normalize distance and boundaries, especially in cursed (or perhaps, we might call it what it is: toxic) Vietnamese families. I guess another way to say this: the novel is a love letter to Vietnamese women, families, and communities. But unlike Huynh’s letter, which is gracious and written with care, I don’t know if they can always love us back. And that’s okay.
Nonetheless, the novel is a fun, fast-paced, page-turning read, with slapstick humor reminiscent of the comedy bits of Paris By Night, the nostalgia of sitting in a car with a friend to smoke and drink and vent about your parents and wanting to get out of San Jose Orange County, and the frustrations of balancing both Tinder dates and arrangements by your mom and scheming aunties. I can only imagine how many Vietnamese readers, especially of the post-war generation, will see reflections of themselves and their family in Fortunes.