As a child, isolated from the world in a secretive military encampment with her distant mother, she turns for affection to a sympathetic soldier and to the only other girl in the camp, forming two friendships that will shape the rest of her life.
As a young adult in New York, cut off from her native country and haunted by the scars of her youth, she is still in search of a home. She falls in love with a married woman who is the image of her childhood friend, and follows strangers because they remind her of her soldier. When tragedy arises, she must return to Vietnam to confront the memories of her youth – and recover her identity.
An inspiring meditation on love, loss, and the presence of a past that never dies, the novel explores the ancient question: do we value the people in our lives because of who they are, or because of what we need them to be? (Synopsis courtesy of Goodreads.)
If I Had Two Lives presents with a stark, raw view of the world, yet within the rawness we see moments of beauty and hope. As the child is thrown into an abyss of madness, not knowing where she is or really, who she is, the reader feels every emotion and we see her struggles in fighting against the horrific situation she’s in. In many scenes, there is uncertainty with her mother. In many others, bonding and finding her way with the soldier or the only other girl in camp. It’s this delicate balance between what’s good and what isn’t that shapes and molds what we see and the changes that are reflective within the protagonist.
There are no names given to many of the characters within this book, and they are not needed. It isn’t important. What makes each character stand out are the well-devised blueprints for each one, how they ebb and flow around the child who turns into a girl, and then a woman. Those blueprints carry out and lend into who she looks for going forward, because in essence, she’s always looking for the two friends who are so important to her, in everyone she has an encounter with. In doing so, she can hopefully mend bridges and try to repair the damage from all those years ago. And through it all, an undercurrent of matriarchal strife. The biggest catalyst for the protagonist is her need to rectify what has gone wrong in her relationship with her mother, possibly one of the biggest forces in her life.
Every chapter, every sentence is filled with honesty. I appreciated that we got to witness the growth of this little girl, could feel and believe that she’s just a child in the beginning, who later transitions into a young woman, with the voice of someone who is grown but there are parts to her that are not. Through all of it, there is no holding back of what she sees and the experiences she might have. Even when it’s tough to read, even when in some moments, it might hit a little too close to home for this reader. Yet that gave me more reason to continue on. In the moments of despair, I clung to the moments of hope, much like she had. A way out of a dark tunnel she can’t seem to find her way out of. A beautifully tragic story of perseverance and acceptance.