Note: I wrote this review about five years ago, and am just publishing it now.
I picked up Listen, Slowly by Thanhhà Lai because the story intrigued me. It’s about 12-year-old Mai, the daughter of immigrants from Viet Nam.
Her parents have just co-oped her summer plans. Instead of spending it on the beach with her best friend Montana, Mai is going to Viet Nam with her father and grandmother. She is to help her grandmother as she searches for information about her husband, Mai’s grandfather, who disappeared during the Viet Nam war.
Obviously, Mai is very unhappy about this. And most of the book consists of her complaints – about missing her friend, about being stuck in Viet Nam, about the mosquitos, about the heat, about her parents, and on and on.
There are also parts of the book where Mai acts the celebrity – a girl from America! – and tells the village women that all the girls wear thong underwear in America. There’s a lot of discussion about her friend Montana’s body, and swimsuit’s butt bow meant to entice the boys at the beach. Especially the boy Mai likes.
These parts of the story I could have lived without. I have two teenage daughters, both older than 12, and neither of whom would even think about obsessing over these topics. Maybe it’s a Southern California thing?
The parts I enjoyed were Mai’s reconnecting with her grandmother, remembering her childhood spent with her grandmother. I enjoyed her slowly developing friendship with the other village girl her age. And I enjoyed Mai’s tenderness and stubbornness in making sure her grandmother got the information she needed to finally say good-bye to her grandfather. I also enjoyed the beautiful and pictorial language Mai’s grandmother uses.
I listened to this book, which I would recommend. I cannot imagine trying to muddle through all the Vietnamese spoken in this book – I suppose I would skip quite a bit of it. But listening to it – oh! The language is beautiful, even if you don’t know what it means. Lai does a masterful job of bringing out the meaning of the conversations without translating it word for word every time.
I found this book in the children’s section of our library, but I would definitely call it a young adult book. On many occasions I was thankful I was the only one in the van while I was listening to it – no need for my 12-year-old son to listen to it; I certainly didn’t want my 13 & 15 year old daughters thinking they needed to be like Mai or Montana. My 17-year-old heard some of it and was a bit shocked.
(If that means I’ve sheltered my kids, I’m OK with that.)
Final word: Good story. Awesome narrator. Listen at your own risk.