Family in six tones A refugee mother, an American daughter

Lan Cao, 1961-

Book - 2020

"A mother-daughter memoir exploring loss, love, and healing, told in two alternating voices, from the critically acclaimed novelist and her teenage daughter"--

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[New York, New York] : Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC [2020]
Physical Description
304 pages ; 24 cm
Main Author
Lan Cao, 1961- (author)
Other Authors
Harlan Margaret Van Cao (author)
Review by Library Journal Reviews

A law professor and novelist (The Lotus and the Storm), Cao came to America four decades ago as a 13-year-old refugee from Vietnam and still feels less than sure-footed in her adoptive home. Daughter Margaret didn't have those experiences, but her life has been shaped by her family's recall of war, flight, and culture clash, sometimes using this dual memoir to turn her mother's pained flashbacks into fantastical interludes. Copyright 2020 Library Journal.

Review by Publishers Weekly Reviews

A Vietnamese refugee, now a California law professor and novelist, attempts to create a secure life for her American-born child in this uneven dual-perspective memoir. Novelist Lan (The Lotus and the Storm) and her teenage daughter Harlan recount childhood memories: Lan in wartime Saigon witnessing "blackened bodies" in hospitals; Harlan in Virginia in "a nine-thousand-square-foot mansion" in a gated community. The bickering narrative of the overprotective mother and rebellious teen turns dark as Harlan reveals multiple personalities hiding under Lan's poised surface: "No Name," is brutal toward Harlan, while six-year-old "Cecile" plays with Harlan. Painful parallels are evident: 13-year-old Lan is expected to stoically adopt to her new life in America, and young Harlan is pressured to say nothing about Lan's "darker shadow selves." Their relationship, tempered by Harlan's father, a constitutional law professor, intensifies after his death. Glimpses of Lan's years at Mount Holyoke, Yale Law School, and practicing corporate law in Manhattan show a young woman who succeeded despite her burdens; in comparison, Harlan's experiences are thin. It isn't until they visit Saigon together that they find common ground. The blended memoir only occasionally works, but in those moments, the effect is powerful and unsettling. (Sept.) Copyright 2020 Publishers Weekly.

Review by Publisher Summary 1

The author of Monkey Bridge describes her experiences of being a refugee immigrant and mother, reflecting on how her family has been impacted by war while exploring how cultural differences have shaped her relationship with her American daughter.

Review by Publisher Summary 2

"A mother-daughter memoir exploring loss, love, and healing, told in two alternating voices, from the critically acclaimed novelist and her teenage daughter"--

Review by Publisher Summary 3

"A brilliant duet and a moving exploration of the American immigrant experience."--Ruth Ozeki, author of A Tale for the Time Being

A dual first-person memoir by the acclaimed Vietnamese-American novelist and her thoroughly American teenage daughter

In 1975, thirteen-year-old Lan Cao boarded an airplane in Saigon and got off in a world where she faced hosts she had not met before, a language she didn't speak, and food she didn't recognize, with the faint hope that she would be able to go home soon. Lan fought her way through confusion, and racism, to become a successful lawyer and novelist. Four decades later, she faced the biggest challenge in her life: raising her daughter Harlan--half Vietnamese by birth and 100 percent American teenager by inclination. In their lyrical joint memoir, told in alternating voices, mother and daughter cross ages and ethnicities to tackle the hardest questions about assimilation, aspiration, and family.

Lan wrestles with her identities as not merely an immigrant but a refugee from an unpopular war. She has bigoted teachers who undermine her in the classroom and tormenting inner demons, but she does achieve--either despite or because of the work ethic and tight support of a traditional Vietnamese family struggling to get by in a small American town. Lan has ambitions, for herself, and for her daughter, but even as an adult feels tentative about her place in her adoptive country, and ventures through motherhood as if it is a foreign landscape.

Reflecting and refracting her mother's narrative, Harlan fiercely describes the rites of passage of childhood and adolescence, filtered through the aftereffects of her family's history of war, tragedy, and migration. Harlan's struggle to make friends in high school challenges her mother to step back and let her daughter find her own way.

Family in Six Tones speaks both to the unique struggles of refugees and to the universal tug-of-war between mothers and daughters. The journey of an immigrant--away from war and loss toward peace and a new life--and the journey of a mother raising a child to be secure and happy are both steep paths filled with detours and stumbling blocks. Through explosive fights and painful setbacks, mother and daughter search for a way to accept the past and face the future together.