Monkey Bridge

Monkey Bridge

3.8 4
by Lan Cao

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Charting the unmapped territory of the Vietnamese American experience in the aftermath of war, the narratives here traverse perilously between worlds past and present, East and West, telling two interlocking stories.


Charting the unmapped territory of the Vietnamese American experience in the aftermath of war, the narratives here traverse perilously between worlds past and present, East and West, telling two interlocking stories.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Lan Cao's first novel derives its title from Vietnamese monkey bridges, the delicate, fragile structures that span the narrow and wide rivers, the deltas and water-soaked rice paddies of the lush Vietnamese countryside. To cross monkey bridges requires agility and, more importantly, a sort of faith, an ability to "set aside the process itself in favor of seeing the act whole and complete. It could be dangerous, of course, but rivers had to be crossed, so why not pretend [to] do it with instinct and ease?" It is precisely this sort of balancing act that is required of Cao's protagonists, Mai Nguyen and her mother, Thanh, Vietnamese refugees who arrive in America to negotiate a new life for themselves in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In the tradition of Maxine Hong Kingston's classic The Woman Warrior and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck CLub, Cao's tale interweaves history, folktales, and cultural rituals, all the while probing the complex bond between Mai and the mother whose heart is irrevocably linked to a land and way of life that no longer exists. "The dreadful truth was simply this," a teenage Mai observes coolly in the book's opening chapter: "We were going through life in reverse....I would have to forgo the luxury of adolescent experiments and temper tantrums, so that I could scoop my mother out of harm's way and give her sanctuary."

The concept of sanctuary— the lack of it and the Nguyens' valiant attempts to re-create it—lies at the heart of this novel. America, we see through Thanh's baffled eyes, as she watches reruns of "The Bionic Woman" andstrugglesto understand the concept of a lawsuit, will never be her home, despite the makeshift community she has formed in the Falls Church, Virginia, neighborhood known as Little Saigon. Vietnam is the Eden Thanh longs to return to, even though she realizes that this particular Eden has already fallen. She is, after all, a farmer's daughter, a child of the earth, as uprooted and out of place in Falls Church as a banyan tree deprived of home soil. Yet Thanh harbors secrets that are deeper than the pain of her displacement. She has been scarred—she bears the mark physically, in splotches of what Mai believes are the remnants of a burn acquired in a kitchen fire decades earlier. But the scar is from fire of an entirely different sort, acquired in a much less prosaic fashion. It is only through reading the pages of her mother's diary that Mai discovers the multiple scars her mother—and her mother's mother—have borne, the secrets that they have conspired to keep from her for fear that the ensuing karma would doom Mai to a similar fate.

Thanh's journals provide some of the most evocative writing in the novel. From her humble childhood in the tiny farming village of Ba Xuyen to her abrupt reversal of fortune—years in an elite French convent school after she is suddenly adopted by Uncle Khan, the village's richest, most powerful landlord—they describe the Nguyen family's dramatic history. In passages describing the village holidays, particularly the festival of Tet, and in her recordings of how to successfully plant and tend rice fields, Thanh's writing (Cao's, in fact) catches fire. The beauty of her childhood home is rendered all the more poignant for the vivid descriptions of its destruction that come later:

[My daughter] has never known a rice field and the current of grace that runs through it like golden light. She has never known how it is farmed, how it is loved, how a bowl of rice is also a bowl of sweat, a farmer's sweat, a mother's sweat. If she were to ask me, I would tell her—about its beauty, the way it meanders across the land and carpets the horizon in a bright emerald... To know a rice field is to know the soul of Vietnam...

But it is precisely the soul of Vietnam that the teenage Mai struggles to shed. As Mai negotiates the entirely different minefield that contemporary America represents, her mother's attachments to the past and to ritual smack of obsession. Thanh, for example, is preoccupied by the idea of karma. She calls it "an ethical, spiritual chromosome, an amalgamation of parent and child." Mai, of course, wants nothing to do with karma. She wants, simply, to understand the mystery of her grandfather, who her mother claims failed to meet her at an appointed rendezvous the day they were airlifted out of Saigon. Thanh is frustratingly oblique when discussing him, and even Uncle Michael, an American GI her family had befriended during the war, turns silent when Mai presses him for information. Only in the journals does Mai discover the fate of her grandfather, unearthing at the same time the key to her mother's tortured psyche. Although some of the passages about the bond between Mai and Thanh can be cloying, by the end of the novel, the sentiment is almost earned. We conclude the novel with a profound, and profoundly sad, understanding of Thanh's haunted reticence and fear.

"Keep what you see behind your eyes, and save what you think under your tongue. Let your thoughts glow from within. Hide your true self," Mai's mother counsels her when they first arrive in America. Thankfully, Lan Cao has chosen the thoroughly American path of speaking her mind. This is a novel suffused with passion and grief for a lost way of life, and for the souls who, for lack of courage or time or inclination, failed to cross the delicate bridge to the future.

—Sarah Midori Zimmerman is a writer and editor in New York City.

Elizabeth Judd

In the past dozen years, fiction has certainly taught us that for Asian-Americans, being a daughter is no tea party. As if to hammer home the point, Lan Cao's Monkey Bridge—which is being touted as the first novel by a Vietnamese-American about the immigrant experience—depicts generational angst worthy of an Amy Tan novel.

Mai Nguyen, Cao's buttoned-up, adolescent narrator, shares the same preoccupations of the four daughters in The Joy Luck Club: making sense of a maddeningly enigmatic and strong-willed mother who's guarding an unsavory old-world secret. Fleeing Vietnam in 1975, just before U.S. troops evacuate Saigon, Mai and her mother arrive in Falls Church, Va., and must come to grips with each other and a community coping with the aftermath of war (the "American War," as the Vietnamese call it).

Navigating suburbia is no problem for Mai; she interprets the adventures of "The Bionic Woman" for her mother, learns English without a trace of an accent and uses psychology—"the new American religion"— to make her mother's seemingly outlandish demands appear kosher to American onlookers. Mai becomes her mother's mother in an alien culture: "We were going through life in reverse, and I was the one who would help my mother through the hard scrutiny of ordinary suburban life."

Comparisons to Tan don't reflect badly on Monkey Bridge, especially since Cao has a distinctive style that's subtle and engaging. But because the novel is so clearly autobiographical, I wished that Cao had abandoned her creaky literary devices and written a memoir. In the interests of creating a compelling narrative, Cao shamelessly leads the reader toward the soap-operatic revelation of Mai's mother's murky parentage. The sensationalism feels tacked on, while the well-chosen details are what gives the story its energy.

Cao excels at memorializing, conveying ironies in the simplest details. For instance, the Mekong Grocery, where Mai's mother works, becomes a meeting place for the American GIs of Falls Church who want to indulge their taste for Vietnamese delicacies and distaste for Jane Fonda. Cao also tells us that in Saigon women buy paper bags of canaries and hummingbirds and free them for the karma of doing a kind deed. And we learn that in Vietnamese, the word for "please" is "make good karma." ("Make good karma and pass the butter.") In "Monkey Bridge," it's the glimpses of Vietnamese-American culture—not the melodrama—that left me wanting more.

Michiko Kakutani
An impressive debut.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A wonderfully written but unengaging first novel about a young Vietnamese refugee who, in 1975, is airlifted from Saigon and only later learns of her family's dark past.

Mai, whose family befriended Michael MacMahon, an American colonel in Saigon, comes to the States as a 13-year-old. After staying with the MacMahons for six months, she moves to Washington, D.C, joined there by her widowed mother. The two make their home in "Little Saigon," the years pass, Mai is soon fluent in English, and though mindful of her past—she nostalgically recalls traditional myths and customs—she adjusts to the new country. Her mother doesn't, though, and a bad fall, followed by a disabling stroke, seems to push her even further into the past. Mai hears her talk fretfully in her sleep of her father, Baba Quan, who was to accompany her to the U.S. but never arrived at the agreed-upon rendezvous. Mai tries to contact him, but her mother is curiously discouraging. As Mai prepares to go to college, her mother seems happier, but the secret letters Mai finds her writing are less cheerful. While the letters at first retell old legends and beliefs and describe life in her native village, the last entries, her legacy to Mai, tell a darker and more complex story. Mai learns that her grandmother had been the landlord's concubine and he, not Baba Quan, was her grandfather; Baba Quan was actually a brutal, bitter man, and a Vietcong leader; moreover, her mother had been neglected by her intellectual husband and suffered many miscarriages. Convinced that she and the family have bad karma, Mai's mother acts—successfully—to free her daughter so that she may have a "different heritage, an unburdenedpast."

Heartfelt evocations of a different time and place aren't enough here to give vigor to a beautifully rendered but disappointingly lifeless story of the Vietnamese American experience.

Product Details

Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.81(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.03(d)

What People are saying about this

Michiko Kakutani
An impressive debut. -- The New York Times Book Review
Isabel Allende
With incredible lightness, balance, and elegance, [Lan Tao crosses] over an abyss of pain, loss, seperation, and exile. Connecting on one level the opposite realities of Vietnam and North America, and on a deeper level the realities of the material world and the world of the spirit.
—(Isabel Allende)

Meet the Author

Lan Cao is a professor of international law at Brooklyn Law School and resides in New York City.

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Monkey Bridge 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Luong More than 1 year ago
In her semi-autobiographical novel Monkey Bridge, Lan Cao displays Vietnam not as a war, but as the bond that ties together a mother's relationship with her daughter, by brilliantly manipulating descriptive imagery, while incorporating profound motifs. The author creates an adventure for the reader through her meticulous details, which draw the reader into Cao's spellbinding flashbacks of her experiences of war. Cao incorporates the experience and struggles of an immigrant family consisting of a mother and daughter to depict the difficulty of adjusting to a completely different change in culture and beliefs, and to give the novel substance and meaning. The motif of the mother-daughter role reversal reveals Cao's understanding of the attitude immigrants had towards the war and adjusting in America. Although the novel is told in the daughter Mai's point of view, Cao cleverly establishes the mother's thoughts and feelings through the use of a diary. The diary explains Vietnam's superb beauty, delicacies, and traditions, while upholding the plot of the story. Through the diary, the reader discovers the truth behind Baba Quan, who represents everything that brings pain, suffering, and bad karma to the Nguyen family. The diary also explains the mother's disillusionment towards the hustle and bustle in America, and confusion of her daughter's unwillingness to respect the Vietnamese way. Thus, Cao uses Mai to represent the immigrant with an American point of view, while the mother represents the Vietnamese position. The daughter tries to fit into the pressures of being a teenager in America while being raised in the strict, traditional boundaries of her home; whereas her mother struggles to accept the loss of her father while trying to survive in a country that contradicts everything she stands for. Cao wanted to repudiate the fallacy that Vietnam is just a war. She wanted to show Vietnam's true culture and heart, the part that is overshadowed by the aftermath of war. Through the use of the diary, Cao is able to argue her position as a Vietnamese immigrant herself, and defend her native country from the facts and from the fallacies; thus, showing the true meaning behind Vietnam. Cao proves that behind the bloody curtain, Vietnam represents a garden of culture, tradition, and beauty that blooms and continues to bloom for the world to see. Although the bloodshed of war brought destruction and massacre to a beautiful country, it fails to bury the power of faith and hope that resides in the strong bond of a family. If you like Cao's depiction of the Vietnamese American experience in America, you will truly enjoy Lac Su's stories in his memoir, "I Love Yous are for White People".
Guest More than 1 year ago
In Lan Cao¿s ¿Monkey Bridge,¿ she succeeds in doing what very few authors have by capturing the essence and simplicity of eastern culture in a western novel. It is a story told from the wary eyes of a young Vietnamese immigrant girl who is unaccustomed to her new American way of life. Mai is a character who respects her past but also questions its place in American society. As the novel progresses, an immutable rift grows between Mai and her mother as American culture widens both the cultural and generational gap between family members. The novel addresses the familial duties of honor and respect, as well as the societal behaviors of conformity and change. As the novel progresses, the themes do as well eventually highlighting the concepts of treachery, betrayal, and unchecked passion. The setting is Post-Vietnam America¿a sensitive era of healing, when many Americans simply want to put the past behind them. However, for Mai and her family, putting the past behind them ultimately means abandoning their culture for a new way of life. Though Mai wants to be accepted by her peers, there are also things in her past that have never been explained to her. In an attempt to find answers, Mai reads the diaries of her mother hoping to bridge the gap growing between them. Finally, at the end of the novel Mai¿s mother explains in indiscriminate detail their dark family history¿a revelation that disturbs Mai and awakens in her greater love and appreciation for her mother. In the end, Lan Cao crafts an engrossing tale that is stark in its reality and surreal in its authenticity. It is a tale that captures in perfection the immigrant experience and ultimately the audacity of human spirit.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a child of Vietnamese immigrants and have read dozens of novels, plays and what not, and Cao's book about Mai's experience is extremely relatable. However, I think that this book transcends the Vietnamese American experience, and encompasses all general trends children of any immigrant parents have. I thought it was somewhat long winded at times, but overall, this book is refreshing and welcomed for it's contribution to America's meager literature on the Asian American Immigrant experience and particularly the Vietnamese American Experience.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I am a freshman at Redmond High School and read the book Monkey Bridge as part of a project we were doing on the five themes of geography. Though this book often spoke of culture it rarely spoke of the land or peoples interaction with it. The speaker within the book seemed very involved with her family and the workings of them but oblivious to the physical surroundings around them. The author would often neglect anything except her feelings about the situation around her, which left us in the dark to what was going on all we knew was how we felt about it. The language in the book is very well written but it seems that the conventions of her words were focused on more than the content of them. This is not a book I would recommend reading and one that I had a hard time doing so myself.