All through this affecting but ultimately uneven debut novel, author Lan Cao, who fled Vietnam in 1975, explores the chasm between a Vietnamese-American daughter and a mother who still sees value in the old ways. As a 14-year-old refugee sent alone to the United States just months before the fall of Saigon, narrator Mai Nguyen proves to be highly adaptive, deftly assimilating new American ways. Now 17 and living with her mother, Thanh, in Arlington, Va., Mai schemes to move away to escape Thanh's tight embrace of a past circumscribed by tales of karma and filial duty.
Traveling back and forth in time, from the present of Mai's tale to the past of her mother's, Monkey Bridge tries to make sense of a war that continues to haunt all who lived through it. Though the writing beautifully captures Mai's ambivalence about her roots, Cao undermines her powerful narrative when she injects unnecessary melodrama into the story of Thanh's life. (Viking, $23.95)