A California girl born and raised, Mai can’t wait to spend her vacation at the beach. Instead, she has to travel to Vietnam with her grandmother, who is going back to find out what really happened to her husband during the Vietnam War.
Mai’s parents think this trip will be a great opportunity for their out-of-touch daughter to learn more about her culture. But to Mai, those are their roots, not her own. Vietnam is hot, smelly, and the last place she wants to be. Besides barely speaking the language, she doesn’t know the geography, the local customs, or even her distant relatives. To survive her trip, Mai must find a balance between her two completely different worlds. Listen, Slowly is an irresistibly charming and emotionally poignant tale about a girl who discovers that home and culture, family and friends, can all mean different things.
Note: My name on the cover has changed from Thanhha Lai to Thanhhà Lại, with diacritical marks added to vowels to direct tone. These pesky, yet essential, little marks are featured prominently in Listen, Slowly.
Lai inserts Ba’s lyrical voice selectively into Mai’s story. These heart-stopping passages further shift Mai’s position from outsider to insider to, finally, truly bicultural, just as “Listen, Slowly” invites readers to see Vietnam from the inside out — and back again.
Lai does a superb job of creating a memorable setting and populating it with fully developed, complex characters. Gracefully written and enriched by apposite figures of speech, Listen, Slowly is a superb, sometimes humorous, always thought-provoking coming-of-age story.
The sights, smells, and tastes of Vietnam’s cities and villages come alive on the page, without overwhelming a story filled with a summers-worth of touching and hilarious moments, grand adventure, and lazy afternoons. With a contemporary time setting, this compelling novel shows the lingering effects of war through generations and how the secrets our parents keep can shape us.
As she did in her National Book Award-winning Inside Out & Back Again, Lai offers a memorable heroine and cultural journey—ones that are clever near-opposites of those in that book, as Lai trades verse for prose and an immigrant’s story for one of a girl fully immersed in American culture. The story capably stands on its own, yet considered alongside Inside Out, it’s all the more rewarding.