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If You Lived Here: A Novel
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If You Lived Here: A Novel

3.6 38
by Dana Sachs

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Forty-two-year-old Shelley Marino's desperate yearning for a child has led her to one of the only doors still open to her: foreign adoption. It is a decision that strains and ultimately shatters her relationship with her husband, Martin—the veteran of an Asian war who cannot reconcile what Shelley wants with what he knows about the world. But it unites


Forty-two-year-old Shelley Marino's desperate yearning for a child has led her to one of the only doors still open to her: foreign adoption. It is a decision that strains and ultimately shatters her relationship with her husband, Martin—the veteran of an Asian war who cannot reconcile what Shelley wants with what he knows about the world. But it unites her with Mai, who emigrated from Vietnam decades ago and has now acquired the accoutrements of the American dream in an effort to dull the memory of the tragedy that drove her from her homeland. As a powerful friendship is forged, two women embark on a life-altering journey to the world Mai left behind—to confront the stark realities of a painful past and embrace the promise of the future.

Editorial Reviews

Charlotte Observer
“Poignant...A well-told story, with appealing characters, delightful moments and a satisfyingly real ending.”
Columbus Dispatch
“Precise and vivid.
Things Asian
“ IF YOU LIVED HERE is filled with dramatic moments. Author Dana Sachs deserves to be listened to.”
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
In the tradition of such memorable Discover picks as The Kite Runner and Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Sachs' heartfelt debut lifts the veil from a complex foreign culture, and confronts challenging questions about life choices and their consequences.

Shelley Marino runs a small family business with her husband, Martin, who has two sons from a previous marriage. Shelley and Martin have tried to conceive a child for years and have begun, albeit reluctantly, to consider adoption. When an adoption agency locates a two-year-old Vietnamese boy, Shelley is elated -- but Martin, a Vietnam veteran, is less enthusiastic. Desperate to have a child of her own, Shelley befriends Mai, the owner of a local Asian grocery, who eventually agrees to accompany Shelley to Vietnam and help her claim the little boy.

As Shelley reaches for the love she believes will make her whole, we learn that Mai is suffering, too. For years, she has held onto a secret, painful memory that caused her to flee her country at a young age. The trip to Vietnam represents an opportunity not only for Shelley but for Mai as well, if she will take it. Together, they search the past so they can move forward, into the future, with confidence. (Summer 2007 Selection)
Publishers Weekly
Sachs revisits in her fiction debut many of the themes she explored in A House on Dream Street, her memoir about living in Vietnam in the early 1990s. The story begins in Wilmington, N.C., where Xuan Mai has built a successful Asian grocery business in the more than 20 years since she fled Hanoi. Estranged from her family in Vietnam and reluctant to form new connections in America, Mai doesn't know what to make of Shelley Marino, an American customer who asks a lot of questions about Vietnam. It turns out that Shelley is trying to adopt a Vietnamese boy. However, Shelley's husband, Martin, who has two grown sons from a previous marriage, forces Shelley to choose between him and adopting, prompting Shelley to urge Mai to accompany her to Vietnam to complete the adoption. Once there, Mai discovers a land very different from the war-torn, impoverished country she left in the late 1970s. The novel, alternating Shelley's and Mai's narration, comes alive when the setting shifts to Vietnam, revealing the author's love for the rapidly changing country. Mai's reconciliation with her past is absorbing, Shelley's story is less so, and the adoption plot line relies too heavily on bureaucratic dysfunction for its drama. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Intent on adopting, whatever her husband thinks, Shelley ventures to Vietnam with longtime friend Mai, an emigre whose painful past reemerges. A highly touted debut. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Glib exploration of international adoption. Shelley and Martin run a funeral home in the South, but they are an affable, even a life-affirming pair. They have a comfortable marriage, a wide circle of friends and a tender, respectful relationship. Martin has two grown sons from a previous marriage, and despite Shelley's affection for them, she wants a baby of her own. The book opens just as Shelley and Martin discover that the international adoption they have been waiting for has fallen through, an event that prompts Martin to change his mind about the whole business. When Shelley gets a call about a Vietnamese boy who is ready to be adopted, Martin refuses to help his wife and moves out of the house. Shelley, a buoyant character even when she is grieving, gives herself a crash course in Vietnamese culture, befriending Xuan Mai, the owner of a local Asian food store. Although Shelley's ham-handed attempts to bond with an authentic Vietnamese person annoy her, Mai travels to Vietnam with Shelley to help her with the baby. Here, though, the novel breaks down, for Vietnam simultaneously provokes and redresses all of the characters' most deeply felt traumas. Martin served in Vietnam during the war, and fears revisiting his bleakest emotional crises. Mai did something horrible to her family, and fled Vietnam, never to return. Shelley, of course, finds in Vietnam the very child for whom she is willing to sacrifice her family. The novel is very earnest, and it weaves together these plots very carefully. But there is something in the breezy tone of the book that ignores the messy, unpredictable sequence of cause and effect that it seems to wish to explore in the first place. By the time thevarious plots are all sewn up-unsurprisingly, every crisis has a pat solution-the book has veered dangerously close to fatuousness. Facile treatment of a difficult subject. Agent: Douglas Stewart/Sterling Lord Literistic Inc.

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

Read an Excerpt

If You Lived Here

A Novel
By Dana Sachs

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Dana Sachs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061130489

Chapter One


I'd guess that Marinos have been burying Rivenbarks for seventy years. I can't compare funeral customs here in Wilmington, North Carolina, with funeral customs anywhere else, but I can tell you that Rivenbarks usually ask for the minister from First Baptist, flowers from Will Rehder, and an open bar. Sometimes they read Psalm 23 and sometimes they read Psalm 121. It's hard to know what they'll request for a burial like this one, though, because there's nothing routine about the death of a child. This afternoon, on the first really beautiful day of spring, four-year-old Oscar Rivenbark fell from the third branch of the magnolia tree in his backyard. The ambulance managed to get him to the emergency room within about fifteen minutes, but he died before the paramedics could wheel him in.

My husband, Martin, and I run Marino and Sons, the biggest funeral home in the area. Between the two of us, we have over forty years of experience. Still, we struggle when a child dies. Outsiders probably imagine that my world is all catastrophe, but most of our cases come from heart attacks, hospice, and Brightmore, a retirement community a few miles away. It's not like there's a fatal car accident after every prom.

I get the news of the accident fromthe police blotter, so I'm prepared when the boy's aunt, Gracie Rivenbark, makes the first call to our office at about five. I click open the calendar on my desktop and ask, in a voice that sounds both competent and sympathetic, "When would Tara and Mark like to come in?" I try to get the parents involved as soon as possible. I'm here to help them with their grieving, and grieving starts at the moment of death.

Gracie says, "Hold on." Behind her, I hear the murmur of various voices, a volley of muffled questions, silence, then a few more moments of tortured debate. Sudden death produces a kind of bafflement in people. It confuses and startles them. They forget where they are, their name, the year. And then, five minutes later, they can become extremely lucid. In my dealings with the bereaved, I never rush them.

"Would tomorrow afternoon work?" Gracie asks. "Around two?"

"That's fine," I say. This case demands particular sensitivity, not just because the boy was young, but because his parents are young as well. Even Aunt Gracie seems to be conducting this business for the first time, ever. When you bury old people, you often deal with other old people, and they're likely to have organized a funeral before. As gently as possible, I tell her, "I'll need them to bring in a few things when they come."

Gracie says, "A few things?"

"An outfit. Something he might have worn to church, or even something he loved to play in." Gracie confers again with her relatives. The door to my office squeaks open and I look up to see my husband, Martin, slip inside. He's wet haired and red faced from the gym and he's holding today's mail. He doesn't know what's happened yet. When he looks at me, I squinch my eyes shut, then open them again, signaling, This is a bad one. I scrawl "Rivenbark—4 ys. old" on a notepad. After a lifetime in this business, Martin doesn't respond to news of death in any obvious way. His flinches are microscopic: a twitch at his mouth; an alteration in his breath; the slow, slow blink of his eyes. Cases like this one have always been hard on him, and they seem to have gotten harder lately. I dread the thought of what's ahead for us.

"Why do you need clothes?" Gracie asks.

"Well," I explain, "we'll need something for the burial." Martin sits down in the armchair, starts to go through the mail, then abandons it on his lap. Even the new issue of the Atlantic Monthly fails to interest him. He watches me. Martin's fifty-four this year, twelve years older than I am. His parents and grandparents were all morticians and he started going out on retrievals in his early teens. In comparison, I'm fairly new at it. I got my license a few years after I married him, so that's not even twenty years. I impress Martin, though, because the sadness never really gets me down. It came as a surprise to both of us, actually, that I could marry into this business and adapt so well. How could you know, when you're a kid, that you have the perfect personality to become a mortician?

Gracie Rivenbark says, "I'll go through the closet this evening."

"That'll be fine," I tell her. "And, we'll need a couple of pictures, too, in case the family wants to make a display for the service."

"A display," Gracie murmurs.

"And his Social Security number."

"Okay." Her voice sounds light and wispy. I've got to get the poor thing off the phone.

I make my final point. "And Tara and Mark should feel free to bring their other children to the meeting, too."

Gracie says, "I'll tell them."

And then, in the background, I hear sobbing. It is desperate, rhythmic, utterly bereft. I hold the phone in my hand, listening, staring into my husband's eyes.

At that moment, I forget myself. "Is that Tara?" I whisper.

Gracie says, "Yes."

Martin's head falls back against his chair. I close my eyes. It's been months since we have buried a child and in that time my own life has changed significantly. The sound of an anguished parent affects me more deeply now. I suppose that's because I'm about to become a mother myself.

Martin and I have tried for years to have a baby. At forty-two, it feels as if my chances of giving birth are about as likely as my chances of winning the U.S. Open. There comes a point in your life when your expectations about your future have to shift a little and . . .


Excerpted from If You Lived Here by Dana Sachs Copyright © 2007 by Dana Sachs. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Dana Sachs is the author of the novel If You Lived Here and two books of nonfiction, The House on Dream Street: Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam and The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam. Born in Memphis, Tennessee, she lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with her husband and two sons.

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If You Lived Here 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 38 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I was drawn to Dana Sachs¿ novel ¿If You Lived Here¿ because one of its settings is Wilmington, North Carolina, where my son lives. But the moment I picked up this wonderful book and started to read, I felt myself drawn into a world much more complex than any locale. The two main characters, Shelley Marino, a mortician¿s wife who desperately longs for a child, and Mai, a Vietnamese entrepreneur who owns an Asian grocery in Wilmington and who fled Vietnam and carried a desperate secret with her, have become as real to me as my own family. Both women and the other characters who people this novel walk off the pages and stand before me in flesh and blood. And the story Ms. Sachs tells exposes their hearts in a way that very few books ever have for me. And I am an avid reader who, at the age of 60, has a hard time finding anything new under the sun! Today, it takes a very rare and exceptional book to move me. Ms. Sachs is a wordsmith beyond compare. Not only did I love the path she carved for me, but I found myself savoring the way she used words to exactly tap and reveal her character¿s souls. Shelley and Mai are two very strong women who, despite different cultures, forge a wonderful friendship which carries them both on a journey to Vietnam and on a journey of healing and discovery. I simply opened my own heart to them and, while reading their story, I felt suspended from my own life. That is how compelling this book is. I also received a special bonus while immersed in this story. I am old enough to have lived through the years of our war with Vietnam, and I had a front row seat to its horrors on television newscasts. My myopic view of Vietnam hasn¿t changed since I was a teenager. In fact, I had put ¿Vietnam¿ aside as a memory and as a country which no longer plagues us. Ms. Sachs, with her beautiful words and her heart¿s investment in her story, has changed my vision! Her story is so well told and so consuming that she has managed to draw me in another direction entirely. I plumbed the depths of two women¿s lives. I struggled with Shelley¿s husband Martin until he finally opened up and told his story. And when Shelley and Mai and Martin and other characters forgave each other and themselves, I wept and forgave too. But while doing so, I awoke to the story of Vietnam. The flickering black-and-white images of destruction and human pathos from my teen years have permanently been replaced. I have now discovered, through Ms. Sachs¿ eyes, a Vietnamese people with beautiful souls and a Vietnam of greens and reds and yellows and blues as palpable as the country right outside my own front door. What a gift! What a release! Tonight I will settle down into my pillows and start reading Ms. Sachs¿ memoir of her time in Vietnam, ¿The House on Dream Street!¿ I am now hungry to hear more!
holly0120 More than 1 year ago
I originally picked this book for the location as my daughter lives near Wilmington and I am very famaliar with the city. I was also interested since we have an adopted son. The main thing I liked is the characters " rang true ". Both women were strong and independent, but at the same time knew the importance of the marriage relationship. There was no belittleing of Martin or his concerns, but an understanding of why he felt the way he did. A very good book. Thanks for your insight into the beautiful country of Vietnam and the kindness of the people there.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The first third of this novel takes place in North Carolina and is a pleasure to read. It introduces some interesting people, starts engaging plots, and is occasionally quite funny. The rest of the novel takes place in Vietnam and is simply and absolutely wonderful. Partly, I got more invested in the characters and the delightful turns of their intertwined stories. But equally important are the off-hand descriptions of Vietnamese culture that make everything so vivid. I actually hoped for traffic on my bus-ride home so I could read a little more.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Two sides of a story woven together beautifully.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
So happy with this book it was a lovely story.
mjmutch More than 1 year ago
I so loved this book.  I could barely put it down to go to sleep, or fix dinner, or really do anything.   It is a slow sweet book about love and friendship, second chances and forgiveness.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed reading this book. I empathasized with the main character because I adopted my son internationally. It was also interesting to follow along with Mai and her journey back to her homeland. I loved the connection they established.
Pauline-Dow More than 1 year ago
I purchased this as a bargain book and now it is being passed to all my friends. It is well written and captures your heart from start to end!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was good reading from beginning to end. I didn't want it to end ---- but it couldn't have ended better then it did - it was perfect! I look forward to reading more books by this author.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I simply adored this novel. An interesting, different story, with believable, realistic characters. I was moved to tears in certain parts, and become totally emeshed in the tale. A fresh, new author, I can't wait for her to write another novel.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This was a great read. Grabbed you from the beginning. Author has a wonderful easy to read style and I look forward to more books from her.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Second read kn this book. Very good
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