Kim Thúy is a Vietnamese-born Canadian novelist who writes in French but whose work is available in English translation. The title of the novel, Mãn, is also the name of the story’s female narrator. The name means “perfect fulfillment” and one could interpret the novel as Mãn’s journey to achieve the potential promised by her name. On the opening page we learn that one woman gave her birth, a second found her in a vegetable patch and a third, Maman—”my Maman”—raised her. This happened in Vietnam during the long years of war, and the ferocity and brutality of that war, while never emphasized or dwelled on, informs the story and shapes the features of every Vietnamese character who appears in it.
When Mãn is a young woman, Maman arranges a marriage for her to a Vietnamese man who has a restaurant in Montreal. Mãn’s husband, whose name we never learn, is a decent, hard-working fellow but stiffened by his own experiences in their home country is incapable of genuine affection. Of their marriage, the narrator tells us: “It was enough for him to be happy for all of us to be.”
While working at the restaurant Mãn meets a number of people who enter the story, perform their small roles, and then disappear. Most important of these is Julie, a French-Canadian who with her husband has adopted a Vietnamese child. Julie and Mãn are perfect for each other. Mãn becomes Julie’s daughter’s “Vietnamese mother” while Julie with her resources, her knowledge and energy helps Mãn escape the confines her husband’s restaurant kitchen.
Mãn and Julie develop a catering business. They write a cookbook that becomes a best seller, one that transforms Mãn into a celebrity chef. The author, Kim Thúy has owned a restaurant in Montreal, and she provides us with many delectable descriptions of the preparation, the layout and the taste of Vietnamese cuisine. About halfway through the novel, Mãn is invited to Paris to promote the cookbook, and there she meets Luc, a handsome young French restauranteur who like Mãn is also married and the parent of small children. The poignant, bittersweet, wildly romantic descriptions of their transcontinental relationship take us through to the final page.
While the above paragraphs suggest a chronological narration, the story is not told that way. Set out in brief snatches—the novel contains roughly a hundred chapters and is only 139 pages long—the story proceeds not chronologically but by association. A chapter on how, in the Montreal restaurant, Mãn helps a young Vietnamese dishwasher pass an exam, leads to one about how years earlier Maman taught her to read. A chapter where she marvels at Julie’s ability to openly cry leads to one that begins with her description of how she hides her tears from her husband and then presents this lovely image: “At night when we used to share the same bed, the sound of Maman’s tears sometimes escaped the corners of her closed eyes. I would hold my breath then, because with no witness, sorrow might exist only as a ghost.”
Mãn is like a fine meal that is served to us in delicate bites while we enjoy the lyrical and lively conversation passing back and forth across the table, a conversation that tells us much about the Vietnamese people and their culture.