Thank you to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for providing me an ARC of the book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. All quotes are from an advance copy and are subject to change in final publication.
Reading this book made me crave Vietnamese food so much I could practically taste it. A Pho Love Story is a cute, heartfelt love story between the two main characters, Linh and Bao, but what really made it shine for me were the family dynamics and nuanced portrayals of Asian parents. To me, the title is less about Bao and Linh, and more about the sacrifices of their parents for the sake of their children than anything else, and that’s exactly what I love about it.
Title: A Pho Love Story
Author: Loan Le
Publication Date: February 9th, 2021
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Source: Digital ARC via publisher
Age Range & Genre: YA, contemporary, romance
Representation: nearly all Vietnamese cast
Content warnings: racism, xenophobia, anxiety
Synopsis: 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?
“It’s always a game to win, to maintain that we belong here.” I wonder if Me means not just this community but in America in general.
Bao Nguyen is perfectly content to keep his head down and do what’s asked of him – no more, no less. He has a knack for words that even his formidable journalism director, Ali, has praised, but he’s never really found that something that ignites a fire within him. When he gets paired up with Linh, his family-sanctioned arch nemesis, to work on restaurant reviews for the school paper, he’s shocked by a few of things: the obvious spark in Linh when it comes to her art, the spark in him when he’s writing about something he loves, and the spark between the two of them as they get to know each other outside of their family feud.
Linh Mai knows exactly what she wants in life, and that’s to create art. Whether it’s making posters for her family’s restaurant, paintings in class, or a mural celebrating the culture she shares with an eccentric chef, Linh just knows that art makes her feel right. Unfortunately, she can’t seem to make her parents understand that feeling. She knows that they want the best for her, but she doesn’t know how to convince them that pursuing her passion will make her happier than engineering ever could. Working with Bao is the closest she’s ever come to going against what her parents want and doing what she wants instead. And the thing is, even if Linh could go back to being a dutiful daughter and putting her parents wishes above her own, she’s not sure she wants to.
Just as I was starting to think I was outgrowing the genre and drifting away from seeing myself in YA contemporary, books like A Pho Love Story manage to pull me back in. Linh and Bao are undeniably cute together, but the conversations they have with their respective families about their immigration to America and what they have had to continuously sacrifice hit me hard, especially when Linh and Bao reflect on how their love for their parents influence their decisions.
“We are in the present now – we look to the future.”
Raise your hand if you ever lied to your (Asian) parents about what you were doing because it was easier than trying to convince them to let you go! Would I recommend this to other people? Maybe not. Did I do this? Oh yeah. (Mom, if you’re reading this, look away.) Sometimes the path of least resistance is just a little too alluring to resist.
Bao and Linh have some close calls while trying to keep their partnership a secret from their families, and it gets even more complicated when their partnership escalates into something more. Bao’s parents push him to find his own way in the world, while Linh is desperate to break out of the mold her parents want her to fit into. They both struggle with generational communication barriers in different ways, but it’s obvious that their parents love them, and that their parents want what they think is best for their children. What Linh and Bao – and a lot of first or second generation kids – have to learn is that they can appreciate their parents hopes and sacrifices for their children while also recognizing that they should have agency over their own lives. Their parents fought to give their kids a better life than the ones they had, but it’s up to Linh and Bao to determine what that means for them.
I do wish that we’d gotten more honest conversations between the two protagonists and their parents before the last act of the book, and that we could have seen the older generation start to improve for their children’s sake alone, but we all need a push in the right direction sometimes.
Most of all, I want her to see how the three of us are together, a family. We are strongest only together.
Although Linh’s sister, Evie, is away at UC Davis and therefore not in the book much, I really enjoyed the scenes between the two Mai girls. I’m the youngest of three, and my brother is a whole 9 years older than me, so one of my favorite moments in the entire book is when Evie tells Linh how much she had to fight for the freedoms that Linh is automatically granted. Their relationship made A Pho Love Story exponentially more relatable to me, and now I have a need for more Asian sibling representation in books.
The families in A Pho Love Story are far from perfect. They have flaws, and sometimes they fail to communicate, and maybe they take each other for granted. They’re complex, and nuanced, and they struggle to understand each other – and that’s exactly what I love about them.
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