Back in March, I wrote a little bit in my review for The Frangipani Hotel about my distant relationship with my Vietnamese heritage. I had absolutely no intention of reading another book about Vietnamese culture, yet I still spontaneously requested a copy of Mãn when I was browsing on Netgalley one day. Perhaps now that I’m getting older something inside of me is curious about my heritage. Or maybe the blurb mentioned Vietnamese food and I was sold.
* CONTAINS SPOILERS
Mãn is also the name of the book’s protagonist. She shares the story of her life going back and forth in time from Vietnam with each of her three mothers to married life as a new immigrant in Montreal. In the kitchen of her husband’s restaurant, cooking becomes a labour of love for Mãn, and she enjoys how food invokes memories of loved ones and her childhood. One restaurant customer Mãn befriends encourages her to modernize the restaurant and become more entrepreneurial about her talents. Soon the restaurant is a go-to destination and Mãn begins travelling around the world teaching and sharing her recipes. Life is busy, but Mãn is content and satisfied with her place in life. On a trip to Paris, she meets Luc and quickly falls into a passionate love affair. Her relationship with Luc puts Mãn in touch with a part of herself she buried deep inside as a dutiful Vietnamese daughter and wife. However, their feverish love cannot last as family and responsibility will inevitably summon them back to reality.
Kim Thúy is a Vietnamese-born Canadian writer. Her first novel, Ru, won the Governor General’s Award for French language fiction in 2010 and the English translation was a shortlisted nominee for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Ru won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award in 2013. Mãn is her second English-translated novel.
Everything you’ve probably heard about Mãn being a quiet, beautiful and poetic novel is true; the story is a soulful and exquisite experience. In addition, Kim Thúy provides an insightful look at Vietnamese history, culture and cuisine.
Mãn shares stories about her three mothers, but I honestly could never tell which one she was talking about and was frequently confused.
When I began reading the book, I thought, “Oh great, a story about a mute and passive Vietnamese woman. Let the stereotypes begin.” But perhaps I was just railing against my own experience with the expectation of how Vietnamese girls are supposed to behave.
Mãn is about a woman who is dutiful and willing to make sacrifices, and it took me by surprise how touched I was to read how her character transcends a role shaped by culture and tradition to bloom into a woman full of life and empowerment. Mãn’s happiness is sadly yanked away, but the ending subtly suggests that a little fire was still left burning inside her and this is what I will remember the most about the story.
NOTE: I would like to thank Random House Canada for providing me with an ARC of this book through Netgalley.