Riveting Tales of Romance and War
New offerings delve into Vietnamese immigrants, the Civil War, and forbidden love
By Jacquie Gordon
St. Martin's Press
336 pp., $24.95
By Lan Cao
260 pp., $23.95
By Charles Frazier
Atlantic Monthly Press
367 pp., $23
The title of Jacquie Gordon's first novel, Flanders Point, carries a mild whiff of romance. It sounds perhaps like one of those love stories starring a tempestuous heroine and a brooding mysterious man who meet on a craggy bluff overlooking the sea in some scenic part of Cornwall, England.
A closer inspection seems to bear out one's first impression. The setting could well be described as an American version of a Cornish cove: a beautiful, wildish piece of marshland on the Connecticut side of the Long Island Sound, where Charlotte Delafield, a senior at a private school for girls, falls in love with Brian Parton, her English teacher. Charlotte is beautiful, impetuous, and totally inexperienced. Brian, a serious young man and an aspiring poet, is determined not to become involved with a student, but cannot deny he has feelings for her, feelings he must keep to himself. Charlotte, after all, is his student and not yet 18. And this novel is set in the late l950s, when higher standards of propriety still prevailed in the groves of academe.
This, however, is not just another romantic story of a young woman's first experience of forbidden love. Gordon offers a thoughtful and perceptive examination of the highly charged relationship that can develop between teacher and student.
Although her heroine and hero are attractive and engaging characters, they are not falsely glamorized or idealized. Charlotte's troubled family background - a volatile father and a chilly mother in the midst of contentious divorce proceedings - is also part of the picture.
Gordon provides a shrewdly insightful portrait of Haddam, the prestigious but financially ailing prep school where the story takes place. The elderly Miss Haddam, the school's idealistic founder, is still at the helm. Waiting in the wings is headmistress Margaret Chase, seemingly well qualified to take over, but actually less high-minded and more personally motivated than she seems.
Young Charlotte is a keen observer of nature, and through her eyes and ears, the marshland comes alive: its weather, plants, and animals, particularly its birds. As Brian teaches Charlotte about literature, she calls his attention to the natural surroundings. What Charlotte notices, to her surprise, is how the behavior of a particular animal sometimes bears no resemblance to what scientists have established as its species' pattern. She is learning that not even animals and plants, let alone human beings, can always be expected to act in a standardized fashion.
Gordon weaves together the interconnecting strands of her novel with understated finesse. Operating in a literary realm often marred by romantic stereotypes, she manages to endow her characters with a real sense of individuality and to handle the time-honored theme of schoolgirl infatuation with a winning blend of freshness and sophistication.
A Vietnamese girl hoping to be accepted at Mt. Holyoke College is the heroine of Lan Cao's poignant first novel, Monkey Bridge, which offers an eye-opening look at the experience of Vietnamese immigrants in America.
Mai Nguyen and her widowed, ailing mother fled their native land in 1975 on one of the last helicopters to leave Saigon. Mai's father, a progressive intellectual opposed both to the Vietcong and the South Vietnamese leadership, died some years before. Mai's maternal grandfather, a peasant farmer, has been left behind. Worried about her mother's loneliness in a new country, Nguyen tries to enlist the support of Uncle Michael, an American veteran of the Vietnam conflict and a close friend of her family, in finding a way to bring the old man to join them.
With impressive intelligence, deep emotional power, and a delicacy born of strength, Cao unfolds a story of a mother and a daughter that is also a story about the changes that unravel and rebuild the lives of nations and individuals.
We first watch as Nguyen undergoes the unsettling experience, common to children of immigrants, of becoming a kind of parent to her parent, correcting her mother's inappropriate behavior. Knowledge and skills that once served the older woman well when haggling with vendors at an open-air Saigon market are embarrassingly out-of-place at an American supermarket.
Next, we are given a very different insight into the mother's character from a notebook that she keeps. "Everything that smells of life before, my daughter thinks she can scour clean.... How can I teach her that the worthwhile enterprise is the enterprise of learning to live with our scars? ... Her own mother, the one she sees as obsolete and defective, is a woman who's gone through more wars than she'll ever know, who's maneuvered through more cultures than I hope she'll ever have to negotiate, who's memorized book after book of Baudelaire and Molire and Verlaine."
There are many more surprising turns and revelations taking us deeper into the complex heart of Mai's heritage, as a daughter of urban intellectuals, a granddaughter of tenant rice-farmers, and a survivor of a devastating war.
Cao, herself a Vietnamese refugee who graduated from Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and who is now a law professor at Brooklyn College, is a gifted, versatile writer, equally adept at discussing the complexities of the war, evoking the many layers of Vietnam's long history, or portraying the emotional half-tones of a mother-daughter relationship.
The American Civil War is the shattering force that disrupts and rearranges the lives of the characters in Charles Frazier's richly rewarding first novel, Cold Mountain. Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier, turns his back on a war that has robbed him of any illusions about military glory and sets off to find his way home to the woman he hoped to marry. Hungry, tired, traveling on foot, uncertain of his way and fearful of being arrested as a deserter, he encounters more than a few strange characters and bizarre adventures on his long journey home.
In the meantime, Ada, his intended, struggles to survive on the farm she has recently inherited from her father, a scholarly minister who had acquired the place for atmospheric rather than agricultural purposes.
Accomplished, well-educated, and widely read, Ada has no idea how to perform the most basic domestic task: getting an egg from the henhouse puts her at the mercy of an angry rooster.
Gradually, with the help of an illiterate but high-spirited and savvy mountain girl, Ruby, who agrees to work, not "for" but "with" her, Ada learns how to make do and forges a sound friendship in the process.
Alternating between Inman's story and Ada's, Frazier paints a wonderfully convincing, finely detailed portrait of two people living through a period of hardship, uncertainty, and dislocation. His writing style is aptly reminiscent of the mid-l9th century but not distractingly antiquated.
Vividly, moment by moment, Frazier renders the frustrating problems, alarming setbacks, surprising joys, and solid satisfactions experienced by his hero and heroine as they converge toward their longed-for reunion. It is the quality and intensity of his attentiveness as a writer that makes these experiences nearly as palpable to the reader as to the characters themselves.
* Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.