cover image Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter

Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter

Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao. Viking, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-1-984878-16-8

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.)