Book Review: Owner of a Lonely Heart by Beth Nguyen

The uncomfortable feelings and experiences that we face as the children of Vietnamese refugees are encapsulated in Owner of a Lonely Heart, a memoir lodged in Beth Nguyen’s experience as a Vietnamese American. A sense of finality spans her book, accenting events like when our parents left Vietnam, after which some of us forgot our roots and those left behind in Vietnam. Nguyen understands that there is no need for and no benefit in romanticizing or exaggerating these conclusions. Her story is centered upon reality. She portrays the contradictions that surround living as a Vietnamese American, regardless of how painful, silent, and unbecoming these experiences are, in the pursuit of answering the question: “When does a refugee stop becoming a refugee?” Just how far does our parents’ refugeehood permeate into our lives, and how does that affect our identities as Vietnamese Americans?

Beth Nguyen was raised by a single father, who later remarried when he came to the US. He left her mother behind in Vietnam, so Nguyen would spend her childhood in the absence of her biological mother. In her early childhood, Beth Nguyen reached out to her mother in a natural attempt to learn more about her origins. To her surprise, her mother’s reaction was nonchalant, and their series of meetings over the years combined to under 24 hours. The book is structured loosely around these visits, drawing from them in order to explore other realms of the Vietnamese American experience. She recounts the three times that she’s been in the same room with both her mother and her sister. The conversation never progresses past formalities in all three meetings, and after the first meeting, she had learned not to expect much from her mother. During the third meeting, Nguyen’s sister comments resentfully about how their mother never bothered to contact them, while Nguyen urges her to remember how they never tried to contact their mother either. Action would prove Nguyen to be just like her mother, because she wouldn’t call her biological mother for years following that meeting. Some relationships fail to progress without effort, and when faced with mutual passiveness, all relationships start to crumble. The relationship between mother and daughter isn’t exempt from this rule.

One of the main themes of Owner of a Lonely Heart centers around the conscious effort that needs to be placed upon understanding one’s mother. The visits never seemed to foster a true connection between Nguyen and their mother. After another lackluster visit alongside her sister, Beth Nguyen says, “I expected my sister to make a comment… but all she said was, Well, now you can feel better about everything. But I didn’t. I never did. I felt what I had always felt: suspended, stuck.” While navigating the tumultuous relationships between her sets of parents, Beth Nguyen remains self-aware and reflective. She acknowledges faults and areas where blame can be somewhat filtered and more properly assigned, and explicitly makes it known where she’s grown. This is by no means a memoir that is regretful. Rather, Beth Nguyen has written about her difficulties with family, identity, and belonging in a way that conveys the irreplaceable significance of the mundane features of it all.

Nguyen artfully writes of how her childhood self gently prodded at her mother’s memory in order to slowly unravel the tale of her father and her biological mother’s separation from each other in Vietnam so many years ago. She writes, “She (her mother) resists the very idea of a narrative. Maybe this is a story that no one would want… We must contend. I am still trying to contend.” Beth Nguyen is also speaking about the letdown of certain promised relationships. Her relationship with her biological mother never developed, remaining placid through a lack of effort on both fronts in equal exchange. In her words, “what is unraveled stays unraveled because it’s easier”. Her experience as a Vietnamese American therefore developed in other ways, through her relationship with her father, her understanding of her name, the nurturing of her grandmother, the legacy she passes onto her children, and her personal experiences living as a Vietnamese American.

In Owner of a Lonely Heart, Beth Nguyen draws attention to the impermanent, nonlinear nature of memory. The slightest reminder leads to a memory, and years upon decades are brought back to mind as a result. For Nguyen, the details of memories do not hold as much meaning as the few sensory and emotional experiences that persist throughout time, as well as the events and feelings that she knows resulted from the event. Her writing is firmly seated in the simple acceptance of memory’s fractured nature, conveying that memories will live on in other ways without being explicitly expressed. Even if the memories aren’t kept in pristine condition, perhaps the fragmented nature recollection lends itself to more meaning as a result. A single memory has the capability to represent an entire era, and similarly has the potential to repeat itself in the future. As such, these experiences have the potential to transcend generations.

Owner of a Lonely Heart
by Beth Nguyen
Scribner, $27.00

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Nhi Truong is a Vietnamese American writer and recent UCLA graduate. In her free time, she enjoys writing stories and trying new creative pursuits.


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