Mimi and Her Mirror is the second of the “Fall of South Vietnam” trilogy written by Uyen Nicole Duong (born 1959) that is being published by Amazon this year. The first wasDaughters of the River Huong , which combines the story of a Cham concubine of a Viet emperor in the early 20th century with the story of Simone, her great- grand-daughter who bartered her body for exit visas from Saigon in 1975, and her life as a high-paid attorney in New York. Mimi is the Simone’s younger sister, whose airlifting from Saigon in 1975 was complicated (and traumatized) by an attempt to find and gather up her haughty maternal grandmother. After earning a communication/journalism degree from Southern Illinois (as did the author), Mimi went to Harvard Law School, and later picked up an LLM from Harvard and works for a large Houston law firm that is representing a company not unlike Enron that is bribing foreign officials. (The author also has a Harvard LLM but went to law school at the University of Houston and practices law in Houston). Amazon Encore will publish Postcards from Viet Nam later this year. I don’t know if it will focus on the youngest of the three siblings, Pi/Pete.
I thought Daughters of the River Huong was uneven with some evocative and engaging writing alternating with some very clunky writing (in scenes set in Vietnam, France, and the US). I could manage the jumping around in time and place, and certainly used to it before taking on Mimi’s first-person narrative. Her imperious maternal grandmother plays an important place in her background and her memory (indeed, haunting Mimi’s American present), but the background in the Hue court is only alluded to here, so the second novel (1) is easier to follow than the first and (2) is richer for those with knowledge from the first one.
Alas, even with that knowledge, Mimi is not as nuanced and developed a character as her forebearers. The living members of her family play minor roles in Mimi and Her Mirror. The big mirror gets second billing for a reason! She gazes at her reflection a lot and muses. For a hotshot lawyer, her analytic skills seem to me to be anorexic. Being uprooted, passing through chaos at the end of the Republic of Vietnam, and making her way through the cold (not just in temperature) US educational and legal system, she recurrently repeats her resume (telling rather than showing her successes) to herself and the reader. She has hot sex with an Anglo lawyer who she learns is a “rice bandit” (Brad not only has a very rich Chinese wife, but has had a sequence of affairs with women of Asian descent and/or origin.)
There is a pretty standard ethical lawyer collusion quandary along with the romantic/sexual confusion. The most riveting part of the book is the last day in Saigon. It has an anti-hero, a very scary villain, and confusion about how Simone has arranged the family’s transit. The Americans in Saigon are not blamed for anything. Mimi realized they were tired and trying to do their best and among the overwhelmed.
At SIU Mimi encounters an older Vietnam refugee whose vocation was to be president of the (extinct) Republic of South Vietnam He doesn’t altogether come off as a character, though Mimi never forgets him and invokes him very frequently in the rest of her memoir (Duong’s novel, that is).
Considering that Duong has experience of law school in general and Harvard Law School in particular, it is odd that her narrative tells a bit about Mimi’s accomplishments without showing anything (this is not the case for being alone at breaks at SIU, but is the case for the “paradise lost”/ Vietnam before the fall portions of the novel.
Duong overuses adverbs, sometimes repeating the same one more than once on a page. (“Incessantly” as a gross exaggeration particularly annoyed me.) The dialogue is hit and miss. Some of the supposedly spoken lines are very wooden and unbelievable, not least that from the ghost of Grandma Que, but also that of Mimi. The book needed a strong editor though an author with a better ear for how people speak would have made the need less glaring. But there would still be repetitions and overwriting to prune.
After a long stasis of middle-age dissatisfaction with the law firm and Brad and repeated memories of the Crazy Man, the ending seems a bit perfunctory'”but only a bit. It is not unsatisfying or overly open-ended. (After all, it is only Mimi’s 40th birthday and she can burn bridges without giving up on river-crossings — )