Dinh Luong, the patriarch of memoirist Bich Minh Nguyen’s first novel, would bristle at his story being described as a miniature; it’s his height, not his status as a Vietnamese refugee transplanted to suburban Michigan, that galvanizes him into a critique of the world’s unfairness. But what Short Girls lacks in breadth, it makes up in cautious detail, particularly in depicting the outsize ambition of Luong’s all-American dream.
When their parents abruptly decided to move to separate floors of their triple-decker, the Luong daughters fled the fractured house as soon as they could, bookish Van to college and law school, flighty Linny to the anonymity of Chicago. Now Van’s marriage has fallen apart just as she left her job as an immigration lawyer for the dull pastures of visa processing, a move calculated to allow her to start a family; Linny is mired in an unhappy affair with a married man and questioning, for the first time, what she really wants to do with her life. On the eve of their father’s long-awaited naturalization ceremony, Linny and Van head back to the Vietnamese-American community on whose fringes they were raised, finding their father in high spirits and ready to chase his dream of becoming an inventor by auditioning for a reality-TV show.
By isolating one family of immigrants from the context of its community, Short Girls avoids the pitfalls of attempting to speak for the Vietnamese-Americans the Luongs grew up with, as a subplot involving their successful neighbors, the Baos, illustrates. (Accounts of Van’s legal work, particularly with a post-9/11 deportee whose defeat in court caused a rift with her husband, provide a fascinating counterpoint without moralizing.) Plucky Mr. Luong, a defiant world away from the stranded, strangled parents of Jhumpa Lahiri or Amy Tan, gives Short Girls its drive and sets it apart from other intergenerational novels. The ghost of Van and Linny’s mother still hangs over the house, but after her death, Mr. Luong’s outsider status energizes him to take charge of the world in a way his daughters, in spite of their linguistic advantages, don’t know how to do. The context of the sisters’ changing relationship in caring for their father and responding to his needs is new, even though the relationship itself is familiar. This role-reversal provides an undercurrent which Van and Linny aren’t fully aware of, but Nguyen’s shrewd, smart narrator never forgets.