Friday, March 11, 2016

#Cybils 2015 Finalist Review: Listen, Slowly by Thanhha Lai

Mai, or Mia as she is called in school, 12, wants nothing more than to hang out with her best friend Montana on Laguna Beach now that summer vacation is finally here, and maybe even speak to her crush and even get to know his name.  Unfortunately, Mai's parents have other plans.  Every summer, her surgeon father travels to the remote mountainous areas Vietnam to fix children's cleft palates and acute burns.  Mom will be staying in Laguna for a big trial she's been working on for three years.  And Mai's grandmother, Bá, has finally heard from the detective she had hired to find someone with information about her husband, Ông, who had died in imprisonment during the Vietnam War.  Someone needs to accompany Bá and look out for her.  After all, she's 79 now and hasn't been back to Vietnam since she and her children fled after the war.

Mai and Bá stay with family, including a tomboy cousin sporting a buzz-cut named Út, who has a fascination with frogs.  While the rest of the village and family warmly welcome Mai and Bá, it's clear the two girls are not liking each other too much.  Mai, who can understand Vietnamese better than she can speak it, finds herself with a translator named Minh, a teenage Vietnamese boy who goes to boarding school in Texas.

It doesn't take long for Mai and Bá to settle in.  Her hope is the Bá will find out what she wants to know and they can get back to Laguna the sooner, the better.  But things don't work out quit like that and as the days go by, Mai settle into a routine as she learns more and more about her Vietnamese roots.  As the pull towards her heritage grows stronger,  she begins to really understand her grandmother's quest for some closure regarding her husband.

And finally, the detective brings news that someone has been found who was with Ông when he was in prison and had left a message for  Bá, a message they must travel to Saigon in order to see.  And little by little, Mai and Út become more tolerant of each other and there is the possibility of a real friendship between them.

At first I wasn't sure I was going to like Listen, Slowly.   Mai struck me as a spoiled, selfish girl who was just interested in herself and her beach life.  She calls her father Dr. Do-Gooder - if it weren't for those kids with cleft palates and burns, he could have take care of Bá and she could have gone to the beach as planned.  Mai is also an overachiever, already throwing SAT possible words into her narration to the point of irritation, so I wasn't sorry when she decided not to do that anymore to pay her mother back for sending her to Vietnam with Bá.

But as the mosquitoes eat her alive, as she suffers a heat rash and a terrible bout of diarrhea, and as this otherwise unknown part of her family embrace her (well, she does have to work a little harder for that to happen with Út), Mai's trip to Vietnam truly becomes a journey of self-discovery for her.  By the end, my whole opinion of Mai changed for the better.

I thought the characters were all believable and I loved cousin Út with her  buzz-cut and frog, as well as love-sick translator Minh.   Mai really turns out to be other than what you think she is.  Thanhha Lai's descriptions of Vietnam all came to life for me - from the crowded hustle and bustle of Saigon to the lush landscape to the quieter village of Mai's relatives, and even the smells of food and other things.

Listen, Slowly is indeed a wonderful story of family, love and belonging and a little bit of comeuppance, too.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL

No comments:

Post a Comment

Imagination Designs