**I received an ARC from the publisher through Netgalley (thank you, Simon Teen!). These are my honest opinions, and in no way was I compensated for this review.**
Book: A Pho Love Story by Loan Le
Release Date: February 9, 2021
My Rating: 4 stars
Rep: ownvoices Vietnamese-American protagonists and side characters
Summary: When Dimple Met Rishi meets Ugly Delicious in this funny, smart romantic comedy, in which two Vietnamese-American teens fall in love and must navigate their newfound relationship amid their families’ age-old feud about their competing, neighboring restaurants.
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 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 pho 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 in the same vicinity 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?
If you follow me on Twitter, you know that I’ve been screaming about this book for literal years. I’ve been so hyped for it for so long, and when I finally got the chance to read an ARC, I dropped everything for it! A Pho Love Story was the Vietnamese-American contemporary that I’ve been waiting for, with a cute romance and complex family histories.
Linh is an aspiring artist who knows her parents would be disappointed by her choice of career. Meanwhile, Bao doesn’t yet know what he wants to do despite college being on the horizon. Their families own rival pho restaurants; however, there seems to be a darker history underlying their rivalry. Thus, Linh and Bao haven’t really interacted despite having met and going to the same school, but one day, they’re partnered up to write pieces for their newspaper on restaurants that would be good date spots.
Overall, the story was very cute. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a romantic comedy, though, because it deals with some fairly heavy trauma (which I’ll touch on later).
I liked the characters; Linh and Bao are such well-written protagonists, and you really understand their dreams and desires. The side characters were great too. Linh’s best friend, Allison, is ambitious and meddling and essentially the reason why they start to like each other. Bao’s best friend, Viet, is also dependable and supportive and loves crime shows. We also see a lot of Linh’s and Bao’s parents, which is fairly abnormal for YA novels.
The romance was cute! I do want to clarify that this book isn’t a hate-to-love story; instead, Linh and Bao click from the very beginning. Rather, their relationship lies more on the forbidden side because their families hate each other so much.
My favorite aspect of this book, however, is the Vietnamese-American representation. I loved seeing Vietnamese culture sprinkled throughout the book, even just the little things like the food and mentions of Paris by Night blaring in the background at all times (if you know, you know).
Also, it was nice seeing the Vietnamese phrases throughout the book! Honestly, I laughed a bit when I read “trời ơi” written. I don’t speak Vietnamese, so people who do can correct me on this, but here are some translations for a few words used a lot in this book:
- con means “child” and is used as kind of a term of endearment
- Ba means “Dad” (more explanation in the author’s dedication)
- Mẹ means “Mom” (same as above)
I will be honest and say that this book was fairly similar to other typical Asian-American stories with protagonists who want to pursue an arts career despite their parents’ disapproval, so that aspect of the story wasn’t necessarily new…and honestly, I’m a little over it simply because I never had to go through that but that’s just me.
However, I really liked how this book made this situation more specific to a Vietnamese-American experience in that many people of Vietnamese descent and of my generation (speaking broadly) have parents who are refugees from the Vietnam War. There’s a lot of trauma there, obviously, and has led them to want stable lives for their children, especially financially. Obviously, this is applicable for many other Asian Americans, but it was just so fascinating for me to read it from a singularly Vietnamese-American lens, which again, I haven’t really seen in a YA contemporary.
Also, this trauma from the war is very up-front and is the reason why I said this book isn’t a romantic comedy. Linh’s and Bao’s parents’ stories of their life in Vietnam are an integral part of the book. I won’t say it’s super heavy; it’s just that this book wasn’t as light as I was expecting, not that that’s a bad thing; I just want to clarify this for other people.
So again, a lot of people of Vietnamese descent in my generation have parents who are refugees, who fled from their homeland and have had to build up their life in other countries. This was something that is so specific to Vietnamese diaspora (again, speaking broadly and not only for Vietnam) that I didn’t even know it was something I wanted to see in a book until I read it. I just related to this so much more than when I’ve been reading East-Asian-American stories over the past ten years, so I really appreciated being able to read this book.
A Pho Love Story had some adorable moments but also explored heavier issues, such as familial trauma. It intertwined so many great aspects of Vietnamese culture throughout the story, and I also really enjoyed the characters and their dynamics. I definitely recommend A Pho Love Story if you like Gloria Chao’s books!
About the Author: Loan Le is the youngest child of two Vietnamese immigrants hailing from Nha Trang. She holds an MFA degree in fiction from Fairfield University, also her undergraduate alma mater. A Pushcart Prize–nominated writer, her short stories have appeared in CRAFT Literary, Mud Season Review, and Angel City Review. Loan is an editor at Simon and Schuster’s Atria Books imprint and lives in Manhattan. A Pho Love Story is her first novel.