Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
- Although most of the novel's threads are neatly tied at the end, Tu's future is left somewhat in doubt. He doesn't get Maggie nor does he get a job working at Hung's new restaurant. What future do you predict for him?
- Pho, referred to as Hung's wife and mistress, is almost a character. Describe the role this humble bowl of soup occupies in the novel. How does it contain the whole history of twentieth-century Vietnam?
- There are two small but poignant references to American Vietnam War vets: the father of Maggie's former boyfriend Daniel and Brentwood, one of Tu's American sightseers. How do these shed light on Maggie and Tu respectively? What do they say, if anything, about Vietnamese reactions to America's involvement in the war?
- The Beauty of Humanity Movement joins a recent group of fiction set in contemporary Southeast Asia, of which David Bergen's The Time in Between and Kim Eichlin's The Disappeared are other examples. Compare Gibb's depiction of Vietnam with any other fictional portrayals of the region you may have read.
- The poetic and visual metaphors created by Dao and his circle, like the fruit missing its rind, are wonderfully rich and subtle. Discuss how they operate as satire and social commentary.
- Compare the two sets of artists in the novel, i.e., those in Dao's circle and those "dandy peacocks" in contemporary Vietnam. What is the value of art to their respective societies? What role if any does art have in politics or social justice?
- In one of the more peculiar examples of the cooption of Western culture, Tu's friend and business partner Phuong finishes second in the TV show Vietnam Idol. What kind of relationship do the characters have with Western, particularly American, culture?
- In the end, Maggie learns only a few details about her father's life. Did she find what she was looking for? Has she, like Hung, made peace with her past?
- Vietnam, though small, is a country which haunts the imaginations of many people around the world - American vets, Vietnamese who emigrated, and Vietnamese who stayed behind. Every homeland with emigrants does this to some degree but are there other modern countries which have (or will have) equally long-lasting and wide-ranging effects? Could this novel have been set in say Afghanistan or Iraq?
- The betrayal by Lan merges with the betrayal Hung feels from his whole country. How is Hung and Lan's tragic relationship emblematic of Vietnamese history?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Penguin Books.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.