Author: Loan Le
If Bao Nguyen had to describe himself, he’d say he was a rock. Steady and strong, but not particularly interesting. His grades are average, his social status unremarkable. He works at his parents’ pho restaurant, and even there, he is his parents’ fifth favorite employee. Not ideal.
If Linh Mai had to describe herself, she’d say she was a firecracker. Stable when unlit, but full of potential for joy and spark and fire. She loves art and dreams pursuing a career in it. The only problem? Her parents rely on her in ways they’re not willing to admit, including working practically full-time at her family’s pho restaurant.
For years, the Mais and the Nguyens have been at odds, having owned competing, neighboring phở restaurants. Bao and Linh, who’ve avoided each other for most of their lives, both suspect that the feud stems from feelings much deeper than friendly competition.
But then a chance encounter brings Linh and Bao together despite their best efforts and sparks fly, leading them both to wonder what took so long for them to connect. But then, of course, they immediately remember.
Can Linh and Bao find love in the midst of feuding families and complicated histories?
A modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet (it is even referenced towards the beginning of the book) with two Vietnamese-American teenagers and their rival restaurant owning families. Not only was this a cute story, but it also was a great education for Vietnamese culture, including the amazing food! Each main character has parents that came to the United States as refugees during the Vietnam War and want only want the best for their children, but want the financial stability as well.
Linh Mai is a junior in high school who wants to study art, even though her family does not approve of her choice. Her family heard of a success story and now want Linh to be an engineer. On the other side is Bao Nguyen, who is also a junior, and does not quite know what is passion is and therefore does not have a major he would want to pursue in college yet. The two sets of parents have been rivals since Bao and Linh were younger and the two children are forbidden to speak or interact with each other.
Linh’s parents opened a Vietnamese restaurant across the street from Bao’s parents’ Vietnamese restaurant. At first, I thought this was extremely naïve business practices as you are dividing your customer base between two restaurants, as they will go to one or the other and not both. However, I have been to places where the entire street seemed to include slight variations of the same restaurant and they all were thriving, but it could just be area dependent and might not work in the neighborhood described in the book.
They interact in school through Linh’s friend, Ali, who brings the two of them together on a project, as she is the journalism editor in the class that Bao is enrolled. As a reader, it made me envious of the well-off school that both Linh and Bao attend. They have tons of classes that were never options for me when I was in school, such as, marine biology. Even though the journalism and art classes were offered, this school took everything to a whole other level given that many of the art supplies were provided and my school had the students provide their own most of the time. After Bao shows promise for editing and writing, Ali decides he is perfect to write and review food places that are accessible to students. She also wants artwork to accompany the articles and recruits Linh for the role. Bao and Linh’s relationship was very cute as the two of them learn that they have a lot more in common than their rival families would have them believe. This comes into play a lot, as they seem to think about events in the same way. The writing loses me a little here as it becomes repetitive when things are told from each of their perspectives and even some events are repeated just from the point of view of the other. Unlike other novels where each chapter is told from the point of view of each character, the chapters contain the perspectives of both Bao and Linh as it bounces back and forth between them. There are times when it would be a single line/paragraph for one of them in between paragraphs/sections for the other. It just seemed a little unnecessary to bounce that many times between each of their perspectives.
Overall, I really enjoyed learning about the inner workings of each of the family restaurants. It was interesting to see how even though each family pretty much has the same restaurant, each of them ran it differently all the way down to how they clean. The writing brings a new perspective to teenagers working as they each work in the family business and that comes with different expectations than working in an outside company. Although I am not Vietnamese, I did grow up with tons of friends who had parents that immigrated before they were born or after, and it felt very familiar to me as I remember hearing about everything when I was visiting them at either their family’s businesses or their houses. I loved how both the Nguyen and the Mai family each had their own experiences with immigration and adapting to life in the United States as it showed the reality that you could come from the same place, but not go through the same experience. There is a huge sense of community as well which is greatly highlighted in the story. The romance between Bao and Linh was good, but not the most fantastic, as they did not bring as much excitement to the story as I would expect in a YA novel and have read in other stories. Instead, this book was mainly enjoyable for me as an insight into Vietnamese-American culture, which of course includes the extremely delicious food! It made me want to visit a Vietnamese restaurant ASAP (Vietnam itself in an ideal world)! An excellent novel by Loan Le and I would gladly pick up any books that she writes in the future!