A ph̉ơ love story

Loan Le

Book - 2021

B̉ao Nguy̋en would describe himself as steady and strong: his grades are average, his social status unremarkable. He works at his parents' ph̉ơ restaurant - as his parents' fifth favorite employee. Linh Mai would describe herself as a firecracker: stable when unlit, but full of potential for joy and fire. She dreams of pursuing a career in art, while working practically full-time at her family's ph̉ơ restaurant. Bao and Linh have never even had a class together - but after a chance encounter, sparks fly. Can this relationship survive their families' feud? -- adapted from jacket.

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Young Adult Area YOUNG ADULT FICTION/Le Loan Checked In
Young Adult Area YOUNG ADULT FICTION/Le Loan Checked In
Romance fiction
Domestic fiction
New York : Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers [2021]
Main Author
Loan Le (author)
First edition
Physical Description
406 pages ; 22 cm
Ages 12 up.
Grades 7 and up.
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

Le stirs up a delicious romance in her debut novel about two teens working at competing restaurants. Bao Nguyen spends the majority of his time helping his parents at their Vietnamese restaurant. He never considers himself to be extraordinary and cruises through school by being average. It's a chance school newspaper assignment that allows Bao to explore his talents and get to know the girl from the Vietnamese restaurant across the street, Linh Mai. Bao and Linh are repeatedly warned against mixing with the other; the Nguyens and Mais offer competing menu specials and coordinate their closing schedules so that their paths never cross. In the beginning, both teens assume their parents' hatred of the other family stems from restaurant rivalry, but as Linh and Bao spend more time together, they learn that their families are hiding something from their past and that echoes of the Vietnam War are still affecting their day-to-day lives. Le pens a love letter to her heritage, while never shying from the trauma of the Vietnam War. Through Linh and Bao, Le captures the fear of disappointing parents while navigating wants and needs. Readers will experience a gambit of emotions while reading this stirring novel, including hunger, loss, and finally, unadulterated joy.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Vietnamese American high school seniors Bảo Nguyễn, who has a "fascination with strange words," and Linh Mai, an aspiring artist, have only ever known the bad blood between their families--especially since the Mais opened a restaurant right across the street from the Nguyễns five years ago. Besides a brief encounter at the Buddhist temple when they were children, Linh and Bảo have never interacted, having been given explicit instruction not to by their parents. Until Bảo notices Linh rushing out of her family's restaurant one night, overwhelmed by a flood of customers, and offers his help. What should be a brief partnership turns into the start of school newspaper trysts and the discovery of long-buried heartaches. Told in alternating first-person chapters, Le's debut is an introspective examination of struggles that children of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants can face, as well as experiences of racism and unspoken sacrifices made to survive in a cutthroat industry and country. The classic star-crossed lovers recipe is updated with traditional Vietnamese dishes and smooth integration of the author's southern Vietnamese dialect, star ingredients of this warm, delightful read. Ages 12--up. Agent: Jim McCarthy, Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. (Feb.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by School Library Journal Review

Gr 7 Up--Set in the Bolsa neighborhood of Westminster, CA, this romantic comedy, told in alternating first-person chapters, is a modern-day Romeo and Juliet that serves up family secrets and self-discovery with a side of hoisin sauce. The Mais and the Nguyens have been rivals ever since Linh's family opened a restaurant across the street from Bao's. But during senior year, they suddenly find themselves working together for the school newspaper on a series of local restaurant reviews. The story opens somewhat formulaically but evens out as tensions between the two restaurants rise and Linh and Bao begin to uncover truths about their families' shared past. In and out of school, Linh and Bao's burgeoning friendship believably turns into something more. Side characters are sparely rendered, allowing the spotlight to shine on Bao, a refreshingly sensitive masculine love interest, and Linh, whose love of painting is in conflict with her fear of not meeting her family's expectations. The book's explorations of immigration, racism, and family history move the plot forward and the feel-good ending is a tad too tidy. Even so, Linh's and Bao's character growth is as satisfying as a bowl of pho. Readers will appreciate the food references and the Vietnamese language interspersed throughout the book. Most characters are Vietnamese American; secondary characters include a white classmate, a Japanese art teacher, and a Black French woman. VERDICT Purchase where light romance or #OwnVoices books are in demand. Hand to fans of Sandhya Menon or Emma Lord.--Erica Ruscio, Ventress Memorial Lib., Marshfield, MA

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

Two high school seniors navigate a long-standing familial rivalry. Vietnamese American teenagers Linh Mai and Bảo Nguyễn have not talked to each other aside from a charmingly memorable but fleeting interaction as kids. In fact, they have gotten explicit instructions to avoid one another. Why? Both the Mais and the Nguyễns have quite the competitive streak as proprietors of dueling phở restaurants located across the street from one another. It's a simmering rivalry, however, consisting mostly of active avoidance and devoid of direct confrontation. One night, though, Bảo sees an overwhelmed Linh struggling to hold it together when her family's restaurant is short-staffed, and he offers to assist--incognito--by waiting tables. What should have been a one-time fluke encounter turns into the start of a secretive working partnership--and, of course, blooming feelings. Chapters alternate in first-person narration, and the swap in voices brings just the right amount of tension and energy, especially in shared scenes between the two protagonists. Despite some pacing issues, debut author Le creates a warm, full-bodied take on the star-crossed-lovers rom-com genre. Universal growing pains and questioning of identity are explored alongside the experiences of being children of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants. Strong family dynamics and community ties, and the supportive relationships they bring, are layered and affirming. Hearty and heartwarming. (author's note) (Romance. 12-18) Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Chapter One: B?o CHAPTER ONE B?O Hoisin sauce is not paint. We need a sign that says that, because our customers don't get it. Today's latest work is a misshapen star on the wall. A five out of ten, if you ask me. The kid's parent probably did a double take, snatched the bottle away, then paid the check and left before M? could notice. To be honest, it's not like the sauce makes our wall look worse; it's just hard to wipe off when it dries. But I try, I really do--sometimes. Maybe. Various relatives from both sides of my family judge me from their water-stained portraits that hang around the restaurant. I sit down and look ahead at the five booths I still need to wipe clean, but this heat's unbearable and the main fan, the good fan, died last week. Break time. I brush off grains of rice that cling to my apron. Later, I'm sure I'll find a few that somehow end up under my socks at the end of each shift. On the opposite side, my best friend, Vi?t, goes at the same pace as me. His ears are plugged up, probably to block out the Paris by Night -like soundtrack blasting from the back room, songs on repeat about the Vietnam War, love, war, poverty, war. Vi?t is the most chaotic neutral person I know. On any other day he wastes time by raving about the latest criminal-investigation show he's gotten hooked on. I consider that a trade-off; he's the one who suffers through my fascination with strange words. Once I was wiping down a front window from the inside, unknowingly overriding his work and adding more streaks than there were to begin with. I'd been mentioning the word "defenestrate," which made him calmly threaten me with that very word. Ba stands behind the counter, punching in numbers at the cash register, then piercing receipts onto a spindle. I think he finds the routine satisfying. The front door opens, the bell shattering the slowness in the restaurant, ushering in more sticky hot air. My mom's voice whips two other lingering, taskless waiters to attention, and I snatch up the towel and wipe off bean sprouts, leafless stems of herbs, and straw wrappers shaped as tiny accordions. M? charges across the room. She drops her plastic shopping bags in the path toward the kitchen, a storm on her face. Everyone clears the way for her; they know M?'s mood. But Ba's expression is as indifferent as his look in their wedding pictures from the 2000s: Stone. Cold. My mom slaps down a crumpled piece of paper before him. "Anh, do you know what they're doing across the street?" Without looking up, speaking to his calculator, he asks, "Did you get more sriracha sauce?" "On my way back, I saw these ugly posters all over the place." "There was a sale. Did you get them on sale?" It's always like this, their conversation misaligned, a not much to a how are you question. "Lampposts, windows all over Bolsa Avenue!" Glass shatters in the back kitchen. The line cooks start blaming each other, Spanish and Vietnamese mingling together. My guess: Bình did it. That guy sucks at his job more than me. M? ignores the noise. "Two-for-one. Two-for-one bowl of ph?. Tro?i oi ." Only one family can get her riled up like this. She pauses. "They're trying to steal all our customers. Why isn't Anh worried?" Ba snorts. "Their ph? is not good. They never have enough salt." Now that I can't verify. I've never stepped foot into the Mais' restaurant. Because what happens? Apparently my mom will cut my legs off. Maybe they had one of the waiters pose as a customer.... M? nods, dialing back her worry. After a moment, she says, "Two-for-one ph?. Who wants to have ph? l?t ?" She laughs at her own joke about their ph?'s blandness. Ba joins, too. Lately their preoccupation with the Mais has ratcheted, probably because they keep hearing about the changes the other family's been making, changes that seem to be in direct response to our adjustments. We'd recently added new wood grain blinds that block out the sun--just because it looks like they replaced their blinds, too. My mom zeroes in on me. "Con dang làm gì dó?" She side-eyes my tables. "Why are the tables still dirty?" "I'm not finished yet." "Why not? He's done." M? points to the opposite side. I look across the room at Vi?t-- And blink. The tables are shining, and the mirrors are fingerprint-less and--yes--hoisin-less. Kid's like an Asian Flash. "Oh, c'mon," I mutter. " Gi?i quá! " she says to the traitor. " C?m on ," Vi?t answers without a trace of an accent even though he was born here. My mom turns back to me. "Hurry up!" She jabs a finger at me. "And fix your hair! It's so messy." I can't help it; my hair has a mind of its own. The poster that M? showed my dad floats to the ground in her wake. Curious, I pick it up, passing by Vi?t. Making sure my mom's a good distance away, I elbow him. "Suck-up." Vi?t lands a punch to my stomach. "Lazy." I pretend not to die; he's always been stronger than me. Vi?t goes into the back room. I look down at the flyer. I'm not sure how anything like this can be considered ugly. It's awesome. There's no other word for it. Just really cool--some kind of collage of old and modern Vietnam: a woman wearing a traditional silk white dress and rice hat winking at a camera. You can see the sun and beachline--reminding me of Nha Trang, my parents' hometown--blazing behind her. An airplane flying above the woman spells out in the clouds OH MAI MAI PH?: TWO-FOR-ONE DEAL. With this kind of advertising from the Mai family, my parents should be worrying about our advertising. We don't have a Linh on our team. I glance out the window. As if this poster summons her, Linh appears from Larkin Street's direction. She rushes into the restaurant, her flyaway hair alive, her large canvas bag, which she hauls everywhere, hitting her long legs. Over the entrance and below a pagoda-style eave hangs a South Vi?t flag just like ours--yellow with three red stripes--and it flutters in greeting to Linh. She's always a colorful blur--going to class, dashing down La Quinta's hallways when the bell lets out, running into the restaurant at 3:30 p.m. I see her, but I know close to nothing about her. Maybe it's a good thing she's constantly moving, because if she ever stopped, we might have to talk to each other. And we haven't done that since we were kids. Hypothetically, a Buddhist temple is not a place for insults or threats or a potential bloodbath. I've gone to temple sporadically throughout my life, but the day I met Linh is the most memorable, for many reasons, aside from running into the rest of the Mais and being thiiis close to seeing bloodshed before Ông Ph?t. Before meeting Linh, I'd never seen another seven-year-old kid stab paper with a crayon. Repeatedly. We were in the kids' room where the chùa 's volunteers babysat kids as the parents went to worship or at least get a moment of silence. Mine were catching up with friends upstairs. There were tables with finger paint, macaroni, glue, and paper, and another table with crayons and markers. I'm not sure why--maybe because it was less work--I went for the crayons. The other kids sat so far away from Linh because they were afraid she might turn on them. But the look on her face was calm and concentrated--satisfied, even--and when she made sure all of the crayons were completely dull, she raised her white paper in triumph. I was closest to her, so she showed it to me. The dots formed a complete picture: green grass, a yellow sun, and a red-and-blue swing set. "Wow," I said, like any six-to-eight-year-old Asian kid with a bowl cut would say. "It's the playground at my school," she answered proudly. "Can you draw Spider-Man?" Because back then, that was the only thing that mattered to me. "Maybe. I can't remember what he looks like. I need something to look at." "I have one! I can get it!" I'd brought along my Spider-Man backpack, but it was upstairs in a cubby with our shoes. We raced out of the room, escaping the volunteers, who didn't really try to catch us. Up on the main floor, the temple membership was serving bowls of ph? chay and a white-haired lady waved us over for a bowl of vegetarian soup. Linh took her bowl with everything that my family always taught me to use: hoisin sauce, thai basil, and bean sprouts. That told me she knew ph?; she came from ph?. It was confirmed when we both tried the ph? at the same time and said, "BLECH." Salty as hell. We left our bowls, quick, then moved on to our destination. Running, that's what I remember. I was chasing a girl I barely knew, but I really wanted that Spider-Man drawing. Before we could get to my backpack, though, M?'s sharp voice rang out. The one that still summons centuries' worth of furious Vietnamese mothers. I froze. Our families stood on opposite sides of the room, where Buddha was at the center, accepting gifts and praise from the visitors. Linh and I were caught in between. I waited for Buddha to come alive, chime in, like a referee, and bellow--while the ground vibrates forcibly--"Ready, set, FIGHTTT!" But nothing like that happened. Linh's mom took one step forward, like she was marking her territory. Her eldest daughter and husband were just behind her. " Ð?n dây ," my mom said to me. I thought she was angry at me for running in a temple. I couldn't say no and when I was with her again, she gripped my hand tight. Ba hung back, and I remember being confused by the fury barely contained on his face, so different from his usual passivity. After that, they all but dragged me and Linh away from each other. "You still haven't finished your tables." Ba's voice from the front desk snaps me out of my memories. I'm still standing by the windows, but I notice the sky is a bit darker and the lampposts are starting to turn on. The din of inside chatter fills my ears. "Why do you have that flyer?" "Sorry," I say. "I was thinking of how ugly it looked. M?'s right." I walk to the nearest trash can, hand poised over it. The story of me and Linh at the temple could have been kept as a carefree memory, lost and dusty like an old book in the basement. And I did actually forget about it; she was just one of many kids I'd run around with and never saw again--best friends for an hour or two, instead of forever. Then Linh's family opened their restaurant across from us five years ago, and I knew it was her. I knew she still drew, because she carried her portfolio with her everywhere, the size of it almost as big as her body. I also knew that I couldn't go anywhere near her without risking my mom's wrath. Disdain was clear in my mom's voice whenever she talked about that restaurant, as if it were a person. I heard that restaurant underpays its staff. That restaurant is connected to a gang; they just moved from San Jose, after all. That restaurant blackmailed Bác Xuân, pushed him out of his business. That last reason might be why the neighbors didn't accept them so easily at first. Bác Xuân had basically helped the area flourish, connecting fellow business owners with the right people. Beloved, you can say. I don't think my mom's circle of friends made it any easier for that restaurant-- social wolves who ran various businesses in the area: like Lien Hoa BBQ Deli, nail and hair salons, and even one travel agency. Back then advertising wasn't really a thing, so the good word of one of these women? Certified. You either get a d? ?c or a cung du?c , the latter being as close to great as you can get in terms of Vietnamese praise. Their group is led by Nhi Trung, an older woman who constantly liked to brag that her name bears a similarity to one of the female military leaders to rebel against the Chinese domination centuries ago--as I discovered on Wikipedia. As if that was supposed to impress people these days. I think of her as the General, though the real-life Nhi Trung was the general's daughter. She had a special reason for hating the Mais; she'd always liked Bác Xuân's spot and said it'd gotten the most traffic. I bet she was planning to go for it right when the first opportunity came up. Luckily gossip changes and some attention spans are short. Now the Mais' restaurant has become a fixture just like ours. But that doesn't stop my mom's competitive streak. My parents--my mom, really--have now perfected the art of non-encounters, knowing their schedule right down to when they close and when they leave. In a way, their schedule has become ours. We're background characters in each other's stories. As I look at the poster in my hands, though, I wonder if it's possible for us to change up our scripts. What would happen if our families came face-to-face with each other like that time at the temple? What would me and Linh say to each other? "T?i sao mày d?ng dó v?y ? " "Sorry!" I shout to my mom. Back to work. I fold up Linh's poster and pocket it, not knowing why. Excerpted from A Pho Love Story by Loan Le All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.