From the award-winning author of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a powerful memoir of a mother-daughter relationship fragmented by war and resettlement.
At the end of the Vietnam War, when Beth Nguyen was eight months old, she and her father, sister, grandmother, and uncles fled Saigon for America. Beth’s mother stayed—or was left—behind, and they did not meet again until Beth was nineteen. Over the course of her adult life, she and her mother have spent less than twenty-four hours together.
Owner of a Lonely Heart is a memoir about parenthood, absence, and the condition of being a refugee: the story of Beth’s relationship with her mother. Framed by a handful of visits over the course of many years—sometimes brief, sometimes interrupted, sometimes with her mother alone and sometimes with her sister—Beth tells a coming-of-age story that spans her own Midwestern childhood, her first meeting with her mother, and becoming a parent herself. Vivid and illuminating, Owner of a Lonely Heart is a deeply personal story of family, connection, and belonging: as a daughter, a mother, and as a Vietnamese refugee in America.
"My relationship with the word ‘refugee' has paralleled my relationship with the word ‘mother,' " novelist Nguyen (Pioneer Girl) writes in her ruminative memoir. "For much of my life, I felt uncomfortable with both." At the end of the Vietnam War, Nguyen's father fled Saigon with his two young daughters for the U.S.; Nguyen's mother, unable to access the part of Saigon where Nguyen and her father and sister were living, stayed behind. Since then, Nguyen has spent less than 24 hours in her mother's presence. In plainspoken prose, she grapples with what she and her mother owe each other in terms of time and emotional investment ("I never know how to refer to the woman who gave birth to me"), and recounts the time when her mother chose to go to a casino instead of meeting her one-year-old grandson for the first time. "Sounds bad," Nguyen says, but "I couldn't blame her for wanting to try her luck elsewhere." The portrait that emerges of this mother-daughter relationship is fascinating yet somewhat blurry, as Nguyen works through what little information she has about her mother on the page. She's at her sharpest in several essaylike chapters that turn elsewhere, offering observations about race and class born of her immigrant experience. This shines as a multilayered look at the ways absence can shape one's sense of self. Agent: Nicole Aragi, Aragi Inc.