July 2023

Owner of a Lonely Heart

By Beth Nguyen
Review by
Beth Nguyen has only spent 24 hours with her mother over the course of her adult life, and her revelatory memoir depicts all the love and anguish bound up with this fact.
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The astonishing first line of Beth Nguyen’s revelatory memoir Owner of a Lonely Heart reads, “Over the course of my life I have spent less than twenty-four hours with my mother.” That time consisted of six brief visits over the course of 26 years, beginning when Nguyen was a 19-year-old college student and reunited with her mother in Boston for the first time since Nguyen was 8 months old.

The explanation for this startling fact is fairly straightforward. In April of 1975, as South Vietnam fell to the forces of the North Vietnamese, Nguyen escaped Vietnam by boat with her older sister, paternal grandmother, father and uncles. Her father and uncles had fought for the losing side and now faced “reeducation,” or worse. So they came to America and ended up in a tiny community of Vietnamese refugees in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Nguyen’s mother had been living with her own mother and her other children in another part of Saigon during the collapse. She only discovered that her daughters and their father had fled some days later.

The feelings and implications of these circumstances, on the other hand, are anything but straightforward. Fittingly, Owner of a Lonely Heart is not a chronological memoir. It circulates among memories, embellishing and deepening the reader’s and Nguyen’s understanding of them. In a chapter called “My Mothers,” she writes not of her biological mother but of her grandmother Noi, who provided a safe place for Nguyen in a chaotic household, and of the woman her father married when Nguyen was 3, the daughter of Mexican migrants whom Nguyen credits with saving her life. In another chapter, Nguyen writes of her “white mother,” a high school boyfriend’s parent who taught Nguyen the “ways of whiteness” and helped her read the hieroglyphics of a coded society. Throughout the memoir, Nguyen also writes movingly about being a mother herself, something that has clearly shifted her perspective on her experiences.

During her childhood, Nguyen’s family did not talk about Vietnam or the war. They had no vocabulary for trauma, and her father’s unacknowledged PTSD bodied forth in anger, drinking and home improvement projects that never reached completion. A superb writer, Nguyen gives readers a tactile sense of her childhood home life and the love and anguish she felt there.

“Growing up,” Nguyen writes, “I was afraid all the time. It was a low-lying fear that I couldn’t explain to myself or dare admit out loud.” In her beautiful memoir, Nguyen finally acknowledges this fear—and much, much more—out loud.

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Owner of a Lonely Heart

Owner of a Lonely Heart

By Beth Nguyen
ISBN 9781982196349

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