A Pho Love Story
Two households, both alike in owning Vietnamese restaurants, in SoCal, where we lay our scene. Fortunately, Bảo Nguyễn and Linh Mai are brighter than their Veronan counterparts, although their situation is no less complex: their parents have bad blood that goes far deeper than a culinary rivalry. This is an enjoyable #OwnVoices YA contemporary which will leave you hungry for more.
Bảo and Linh have been told to stay apart, but when a meal promotion at Linh’s restaurant overwhelms the staff, Bảo sneaks over to help. It’s the beginning of a friendship that turns into something more, even though they have to keep it hidden from their feuding families. Linh’s relationship with her parents is already strained, because Linh is passionate about art but her parents want a more stable, secure profession for her. Bảo’s parents, by contrast, support giving him time to find a passion. To Bảo’s surprise, he enjoys writing and editing for the school newspaper – whose meddling editor pairs him up with Linh to do restaurant reviews. Meanwhile, local community gossip inflames the tension between the families when someone spreads a rumor that Linh’s family restaurant has pests, and a visit by an abusive, racist customer sparks Bảo into finding his voice. In the background of all of this is the question: what happened to two families who, back in Vietnam, were so close they were practically related?
I always enjoy a slice-of-life plot, one which follows characters through ordinary events rather than building to a foreshadowed finale. The unpredictability is a highlight here; the book really feels like ‘a year in the life.’ I liked that neither Bảo nor Linh had dated before and are each other’s first kiss – as a socially delayed high-schooler, I’m always happy not to feel like quite so much of a freak.
While secondary characters don’t have major arcs, they existed to me as real people instead of figures to push the plot for others. I appreciated that the parents were different from each other, because in YA developed adults are rare. Speaking of adults, the secondary character of Chef Bryan Le steals every scene he’s in. A hyperactive Vietnamese-American restaurateur, Chef Le embraces the two reviewers who remind him of himself, going as far as to offer Linh her first paid commission.
It’s clear that the author is an expert in restaurant life (whether personally or by meticulous research, I don’t know). We can see the difference between Chef Le’s “culinary” kitchen, a well-oiled machine, and the more haphazard family kitchens of the Mai and Nguyễn families, where kids nap in the rice storage room. We understand the precarious finances and the details of food production (what time you have to show up for prep, and the patter of Spanish, English, and Vietnamese spoken in the kitchen). A scene where Linh and her parents visit an Americanized Vietnamese restaurant, where the white waiter can’t even understand their pronunciation of the Vietnamese dishes on the menu, is particularly good.
At least, I think it was Linh’s family, and not Bảo’s. See, the book is narrated in the first person, with Bảo and Linh alternating chapters, but unfortunately, their voices are completely indistinguishable. I’d frequently be several pages deep in one of Linh’s chapters when someone would call her Bảo, and I’d realize I’d mixed up the narrators again. The external clues aren’t enough because they live in the same settings (restaurant, school), have overlapping friends, and even call their parents by the same names (Mẹ and Ba). So you have a teen who grew up in a restaurant conducting research with their parents, Mẹ and Ba, and… I have no idea who it was.
We learn early on that there is a secret origin to the enmity between the two families, and while everybody around Bảo and Linh knows it, nobody will tell them what it is. I was torn between feeling sympathetic (‘Of course it’s hard for the characters to ask their parents about this’) and feeling skeptical (‘These people aren’t talking because the plot isn’t ready for us to all know it yet.’) The ultimate answer is effective but a bit pat. I also couldn’t make the timetable line up. One character references a TV show that aired from 2011-2019, so at the earliest, these high school seniors were born in the mid 1990s. However, Linh’s aunt was old enough to be engaged before the fall of Saigon, which puts the parents’ generation in their 40s in the 1990s. I think the author wrote from her own experience, but is two decades older than her characters. The setting should just have been pushed back, or the characters made older (I actually would have preferred this book as a living-at-home New Adult college story, where Linh is trying to conceal her major and Bảo is struggling with being undeclared).
Despite these issues, I kept turning the pages for several reasons. I wanted to know about the family backstory. I enjoyed following Bảo’s growth as a writer (which was more interesting than Linh’s always-a-genius art arc). I liked reading about day-to-day life and the dynamics of Little Saigon, such as the neighborhood celebration of Tết, a detail of someone opening a restaurant named after Hồ Chí Minh in a neighborhood of South Vietnamese refugees, and the pride the entire community takes in Bảo’s anti-racist op-ed. The descriptions of the food are mouthwatering, which is always a weakness of mine, and I liked the use of Vietnamese in the dialogue (even when I ended up googling because the narrative didn’t make the meaning clear), and the realistic English errors that occur when that language is spoken by non-native speakers.
Overall, A Pho Love Story rises above standard YA fare. But while I’d say it’s a must-have for libraries and classrooms, it’s not a must-read for adults fans of YA.