As a Vietnamese person, reading A Pho Love Story felt like I was visiting characters who could be my family or friends of my family. This was the first time that I could see myself culturally in the characters of a novel as my mother was also from Nha Trang and the rest my family is primarily from Central Vietnam a major region which is often forgotten since most people see Vietnam as being divided into just South and North Vietnam. I relished in the fact that I could pick up on the Vietnamese that was spoken by the characters, though it may confuse for readers who aren’t familiar with the Vietnamese language as sometimes the context clues aren’t enough. I also loved seeing the characters eat home cooked Vietnamese dishes that aren’t as well known to people who aren’t Vietnamese. Everyone may have heard of phở and banh xèo, but in my family those were more for “special occasion”. We tend to regularly eat things like canh sườn bí (pumpkin/melon soup with pork), canh chua (sweet and sour soup), bánh bèo (water fern cakes), and bánh ướt (Vietnamese pancake wrappers made from rice noodles) all of which are things that Linh and Bao eat in the book.
Family is often at the heart of Vietnamese culture, so it should be no surprise that at its core, Loan Le’s A Pho Love Story is as much a story about family as it is about first love and finding yourself. I found it interesting reading about teens who had to help with their family business, while also being regular high schoolers. It was cool getting a behind the scenes look at what goes into running a Vietnamese restaurant. I liked how the challenges were not glossed over, whether it be competing restaurants, the power of word of mouth or even difficult and racist customers. Speaking of which, it was heartwarming seeing Bao stand up for his parents and the Vietnamese community that he is part of. Children of immigrant from non-English-speaking countries can relate to how Bao’s parents were reluctant to fight back against the racist attacks for fear of making things worse. I’m probably not alone in my experience growing up and hiding things to protect my parents while also feeling helpless, unable to defend them. So it made me tear up a bit out of pride that Bao could find his voice at this age.
But what truly stood out to me was just how Vietnamese this book was. It should go without saying, but Asian Americans aren’t a cultural monolith. Sure there may be common elements in many Asian immigrant families like the double standards when it come to boy and girls, and the “encouragement” of picking a stable career like medicine, engineering or something in business/finance over something less “certain” like the arts but there are also many experiences that are unique to those who come from a Vietnamese background. Vietnam has had a history of being constantly ravaged by wars, and this has left a mark on its people. Even after all the years, it lingers on as intergenerational family trauma. A Pho Love Story touches on this through the gradual revelation of the Mais and Nguyễns’ shared past and the reason behind the “bad blood” between the two families. This book was refreshingly honest in how it doesn’t shy away from showing how detrimental family secrets can be, especially to the younger generation. The only way families can overcome intergenerational family trauma is by coming together and being open with one another.
Despite “love story” being in the actual title, the romance in this book wasn’t my favourite thing. It was odd how Linh and Bao can go years with barely any interaction, yet suddenly develop feelings after a few short encounters, though maybe that’s how things are when you’re a teenager? That being said, I appreciated how they didn’t officially date until much later in the book, and that was after working together on an assignment for their school newspaper that had them trying out date spots together to recommend to high schoolers. That their family hated each other was not romanticized as evident by Linh’s eventual anxiety spirals and the emotional toils on both of them because of being forced to keep their relationship a secret from both their families. I did like however enjoy both Bao and Linh’s individual journeys in the book, I loved seeing Bao discover his passion and Linh come into her own as an artist. And I love Linh’s friendship with Allie and Bao’s friendship with Việt.
Initially, it took some time for A Pho Love Story to hook me in but I’m glad I stuck with it as I ended up enjoying it in the end. In the past year and going into this year, I’m seeing more and more books by Vietnamese writers coming out and it makes me proud to be Vietnamese seeing all the Own Voices stories. Especially in YA fiction, as it’s important for Vietnamese teens to read books where they can see themselves in the characters so that they know their stories matter just as much as anyone else’s stories.
Regardless of how this book came into my possession, the above review consists of my honest opinion of the book and my opinion only.