Six short novellas: A young engineer who spent the Vietnam War with the Marines can't make himself leave Southeast Asia, and marries a Thai Buddhist. His American ex-girlfriend charts her life as a single mother in Mexico and Florida. A twenty-something society woman in the 1920s moves to Thailand to join her brother, the tin speculator. A Sicilian woman moves to New Jersey after World War II, but never shakes off the ghost of her brother, or to understand her understand her daughter's love for a Southeasst Asian Muslim. The stories, some connected loosely, some much more tightly, unfold into a very human portrait of American lives that somehow converge or overlap in Thailand.
Although the content is not easy to sum up, the book is. It is simply a very vivid and seemingly faithful portrait of six men and women, their thoughts, feelings, and reflections on life, love, marriage, globalization, religion, culture, etiquette, wealth, and family. Ok, maybe not that simple--but it's a wonderful read.
The sections are either long chapters or short novellas, and are as precise and compelling as any stand-alone short story would have to be. Yet the book offers the satisfaction of novel, as the (tenuous and/or meaningful) ways the characters' lives interconnect becomes apparent.
I personally loved the book because it appeals to some of my favorite topics--Asia, and Italian America. But it's also a thoughtful but quick read, one I completed in two sittings because I found myself turning pages so naturally.
There are lots of subtle, great paragraphs. Here's just one example (this is Toby, the engineer):
I sat on the balcony, eating fish cakes with cucumber and hearing the music someone next door was playing on the radio. A station was playing Thai pop and then a familiar American tune came on--a singer with a deep, scratchy voice was oh-babying his woman to please come back, he needed her so bad. I'd listened to songs like this all my life. Love and more love; you'd think no one in the world did anything but yearn or fuck or swoon or pine every single hour. I knew all the words too, but I had lost my understanding, all at once, of why this was the only version of a full life.
I'd definitely recommend this book--I think it would be a great book to discuss with others, and wish I had a book club to read it with.