Review: Daughters of the New Year - E.M. Tran
Genre: Literary Fiction
Published: Hanover Square Press, October 2022
My Rating: 3/5 stars
Daughters of the New Year is the own-voices literary debut novel author E.M. Tran, in which we follow five generations of Vietnamese mothers and daughters throughout their journey of migration and integration into America. Our story begins in present day New Orleans, with family matriarch Xuan Trung and her obsession with divining her family’s fortune through Vietnamese astrology. Her three daughters, Tran, Nhi, and Trieu, have little need for divinations, already feeling the pressure of balancing 2 cultures and parental expectations.
Throughout the novel we make our way back through the generations, past Xuan’s history of beauty pageants, all the way to the 20th century rubber plantations, where their original American Dream began.
You need only to read the backflap text to see the huge scope and brilliant set up this novel had, interweaving a generational tale with elements of Vietnamese history and mythology. Add the authors pleasant prose and a fantastic start in which these elements were introduced and set in position, and after the first few chapters I was convinced I had a 5-star read on my hands. Unfortunately, the book shows its “debut-ness” more and more the further along we get, by not quite managing to chew everything it bit off. The first half, in which we follow the three contemporary sisters and their interactions with their elderly mother, is by far the strongest part of the novel. The way the author portrayed their individual lives, as well as the cultural clashes and feelings of resentment within their family was very well done, and will resonate with many readers
Yet the further we become removed from present day (and therefore perhaps the authors own experiences), the more detached I felt the narrative become. Characters began to lack depth and feel more like stereotypes than real people the further back we got. There are clear themes of generational resent and misunderstandings within the story, but at times I felt they were almost present in the authors portrayal of the characters as well. The younger generations felt written with more understanding, compassion and depth than the older ones, which was a shame.
Another disappointment in the second half was that not everything that was set up at the start was followed through on. Even some things mentioned on the backflap as if they’re key plot points become lost along the way. For example: Trac’s struggle with her sexuality is prominently features in the synopsis, but gets very little mention on page.
In the end, the novel as a whole was fine, but considering it had such clear potential for great I can’t deny I was left a little disappointed. Another few edits, either giving the older generations more page-time for development, or cutting them out completely for a tighter scope would’ve made for a more balanced novel.
You can find this novel here on Goodreads.