Book Review: Family in Six Tones by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao

Family in Six Tones – Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao (Viking, 2020

I received an Advance Readers Copy of this book thanks to the publisher and NetGalley. All opinions are my own. This book will be on sale September 15, 2020.

In 1975, thirteen-year-old Lan Cao arrived in America on her own, her family remaining behind in Saigon, Vietnam. When the war we know as the Vietnam War was declared over in the United States, Lan’s family joined her in the US where they together and separately worked to build a new life. Wealthy and successful in Saigon, life was drastically different in the United States where the entire extended family crammed into a single house in Virginia. In the face of multiple obstacles, Lan worked hard in school and went on to become a lawyer, professor, and author. In Family in Six Tones, Lan details her journey from Saigon to the US and how her experience as a refugee and an immigrant was central to her relationships and experiences. Particularly her experiences as a mother.

In alternating chapters, Lan’s teenage daughter Harlan tells of her own experiences as a first generation child and as an American teenager growing up in a world entirely different than her mother’s.

This combination of authors casts a unique light on the multi-generational experience of refugees and immigrants and how these experiences cast a long shadow over the lives of not just those who experience them but their children too. Much of Lan’s life and personality are affected by the years of war and trauma she has been through and this carries through to how she parents and how she relates (or doesn’t relate) to her very different daughter.

Both authors are extremely honest in their story-telling and quite thoughtful in their self-reflection. They write of some of the same situations but often offer very different perspectives on them, showing both a great love for each other but also the deep divide that exists between them. Lan’s sections were definitely more engaging to me. Her writing style read as more natural to me but she also had more life experience to share and more stories to tell. There was a clearer narrative arc to her life.

This leads to the main weakness that I felt in Family in Six Tones which is simply how young Harlan is. Can you truly write a worthwhile memoir before you’ve even graduated high school? Harlan has experienced life as the child of a refugee, the death of a parent, and high school bullying and while these are all real and difficult circumstances, there isn’t a lot here that makes Harlan feel unique or like her story would be more interesting than the average 18-year-old. A lot of what we learn about Harlan from Harlan is told to us and there is a sense of a young woman who is still figuring herself out. (Of course! She’s a teenager!) I couldn’t help but wonder if in five or ten years Harlan will cringe at certain sections. It certainly made me glad that there is no permanent and public record of my thoughts on life from high school.

For a reader interested in the Vietnam-American War or in the unique experiences of children of refugees, there is a lot that this book has to offer. As a memoir, it falters even while you might appreciate what it’s trying to do.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Family in Six Tones by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao”

    1. Thanks! It is really a great way to show the far reaching affects of immigration. It’s not something that ends after a single generation.

  1. Great review! Adding a second perspective sounds like an interesting way to draw out the complexities in Lan’s story, though it is too bad Harlan’s youth weakens her sections of the book. It’s always tricky to find the right age for memoir writing because it needs a certain amount of self-reflection and growth to work, ideally, but high school really does seem a bit too early to achieve that.

    1. It’s a tricky balance when writing a book like this. Lan is an older mother so there’s the potential that by the time Harlan has years and years behind her, Lan won’t be around or able to write this book. The second generation perspective definitely adds a lot. I feel like there’s so much growth and self-learning that most people go through in their 20s so I’d be interested to see how Harlan’s version might change in ten years or so.

  2. I love the visceral, thoughtful, strategic memoir First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, which is about her childhood — elementary-school age — but it was published when she was 30. I was surprised by how amazing it was given that she had to be working on it in her 20s. Usually, I prefer until an author waits for 40 for some good distance for reflection, but Ung had logs of time between 6-7 and 30. Cao, I’m worried, would have a lot of angsty writing given that teen years are the most angsty.

    1. In general, I agree that 40+ is probably a good age for memoir writing. I could see how someone who has been through a very particular experience (like Ung) could write a strong memoir. The dual, multi-generational perspective on immigration was interesting but it didn’t feel like she had the years to process what it all meant. There was definitely a lot of angst that I think wouldn’t be there if she wrote the book in 5 or 10 years.

  3. Hmm yes, I can see where the potential problems lie with this. I really like the sounds of hearing about the same situation from two different perspectives tho, I find that sort of thing fascinating, and ultimately really helpful. Us humans have to remember who people experience things differently, it goes a long way to building empathy, something we all need more of right now 🙂

    1. It’s a great idea to offer those different perspectives. And a good reminder that someone who is very privileged the way Harlan is (wealthy, well-educated, looks white) can come from a background of trauma. And the reminder that even decades after someone experiences something traumatic the way Lan does, they may never entirely move on from it.

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