My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This novel offers quiet satisfaction. There is nothing awesome or monumental about the plot or Gibb’s writing. It is an engaging story written with care and honesty, without pandering to bestseller lists or in search of a specific audience.
Beauty, set in contemporary Hanoi, offers a fresh perspective on well-worn themes: the search for cultural identity and the meaning of “home.” Gibb weaves together three narratives: Maggie Ly, a Vietnamese-American curator searching for information about her deceased father; Old Man Hu’ng, a pho vendor, who suffered cruelly during the Communist regime of the 1960s and 70s; and Tu’, a 20-something tour guide for whom the Vietnam War is a unit in History class. Tu’ wears Nike, has a mobile phone, and knows the name of every NFL team. He is also savvy enough to realize the Củ Chi Tunnels have been widened to fit the robust American forms that he guides through his city’s famous sites.
I wouldn’t recommend reading this lovely novel on an empty stomach. We witness Old Man Hu’ng learning to make pho, Vietnam’s national dish, and perfecting it through the years as he sets out on his own to feed his starving neighbors and later, the pho purists who seek him out each morning. Gibb creates a paen to this savory, star anise-cardamom-cinnamon-marrow rich soup brimming with thinly-sliced beef, rice noodles, laced with lime juice, basil, and Sriracha sauce. My mouth is watering just recalling Hu’ng’s special recipe. Of course, during the years of the Communist regime and the war, Hu’ng had nothing but weeds to work with; he still managed to nourish the hearts and stomachs of those left to him.
Through her three principal characters, Gibbs shows Vietnam as a shifting prism. Is is an ancient land of deep faith and artistry; it is a rapidly modernizing economy that is the darling of investors and developers; it is the ethnic home of a multi-cultural diaspora spread by colonial oppression, inner conflict, and international war. Viewed alone, these facets reflect only one aspect of Vietnam. Together they refract a rainbow of Vietnam’s history and its future.