The 2023 Pop Sugar Reading Challenge directed me to read a book with a forbidden romance, so I browsed through some lists and came up with A Pho Love Story by Loan Le (Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2021), a YA novel about two teenagers from families who own competing Vietnamese restaurants. Super cute cover. I thought I was in for a sweet, relaxing YA love story and settled in.
Not so much.
(My apologies for not being able to do the diacritics in Vietnamese words; I’m not familiar with the language, nor am I confident I would get them correct even if I were to copy and paste from a character map. Accuracy is important, especially in terms of names, and not being able to do this really bothers me, so please accept my apologies.)
Bao Nguyen and Linh Mai are two Vietnamese teenagers from families who own competing restaurants across the street from each other. From their early childhood, their parents haven’t allowed them to have any contact, and the families have done nothing but speak badly about each other. Though the two attend school together, they know little about each other. Linh is an accomplished artist, struggling to make her parents understand what painting means to her; Bao is content to go through life not really drawn in by anything and is uncertain what his future will hold. Both teens struggle with the reality of living with parents burdened by their refugee pasts, loss and pain and secrets a part of their families’ everyday lives.
When Linh’s best friend recruits both her and Bao to write and illustrate restaurant reviews for the school newspaper, the two get to know each other in a way that has never been allowed before, but they must keep their newfound friendship and attraction hidden from their families. Digging into the past brings long-buried secrets to light, but maybe Bao and Linh can change things for good…
Up until about two-thirds of the way through this, I was struggling. Something felt…off. Not right. Slow. A little draggy. Heavy. Which isn’t necessarily unexpected, as these teenagers are first generation Americans of refugee parents. There are going to be some tough topics here. But after thinking about it a little bit, I realized that the cover had led me to expect something of a different story.
The cover is WAY more lighthearted-looking than this story is. There are deaths mentioned; neither family left Viet Nam intact, and they carry their pain and scars with them. Their struggles to build a successful life in the US continue on into the present day; running a restaurant is tough even for people who don’t struggle with PTSD and are native English speakers, so it’s doubly tough for folks who come here with trauma and have to rebuild everything, and are at constant risk of financial failure and their entire lives falling apart again. Linh and Bao live with the pressure of this every day, and Linh has the added stress of knowing her parents don’t approve of her passion and talent for art, which she has to do behind their backs.
This is not at all a lighthearted love story. This is a story of two teenagers living in not just the shadows of but under the strain of their parents’ trauma. They’re trying to build their lives in the dual cultures they’re raised in, but the strain and pressure are incredible and intense, and the stress of this is evident on every page.
While the romance was cute, it didn’t quite have enough intensity or chemistry for me, but that wasn’t my real issue. The book is billed as a romantic comedy, which led me to expect something very different. I think it works well more as a drama, but intergenerational family trauma, financial pressure, and heavy familial expectations don’t mesh well with my idea of comedy. What this book does well is show what life is like for kids of refugees who are working almost beyond capacity in order to rebuild their lives from nothing. It shows their stress, their fatigue, their sorrows, their confusion, their struggles to meet their families’ expectations while still being true to themselves. It’s difficult growing up in a country and culture that your parents don’t fully understand, and that’s something I think this book portrays exceptionally well.
If you pick up A Pho Love Story, don’t go in expecting a lighthearted love story. Read it to understand a little more about Vietnamese refugee culture, and what family life of Vietnamese refugees might look like. Don’t let the cover or the description as a romantic comedy fool you; this book is a lot heavier than it looks, but I think it’ll speak to kids who recognize themselves in Bao and Linh and the weight of the expectations placed upon them.