The Manicurist's Daughter: A Memoir

Image of The Manicurist's Daughter: A Memoir
Release Date: 
March 12, 2024
Celadon Books
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In The Manicurist's Daughter: A Memoir, Susan Lieu seeks to understand her Vietnamese immigrant mother, who died when Lieu was 11, and to reconcile her own identity as both part of, and independent from, her traditional family and its complicated history. Lieu's desire to understand her mother's untimely death after a plastic surgery procedure consumes much of Lieu's adult life, even as her extended family disapproves of her digging into the story. "Can't you just deal with this in therapy?" Lieu's sister-in-law says.

Being so young when her mother died, Lieu is dependent on her family to complete the biography of mother. "Memories of Má are fleeting. I try to grasp them tightly, but they slip away and have faded over the years." This quest takes Lieu on several excursions to Vietnam, retracing her mother's journey, and gathering stories and details that form a portrait of her mother. Just 17 when Saigon fell in 1975, Lieu's mother and family members made five failed attempts to leave Vietnam before they succeeded. "It was a miracle my family had even made it to America," Lieu writes.

In America, Lieu's mother became the family leader, a successful businesswoman, sponsoring her siblings and employing them in the U.S. in her two salons. "The setting where she was most alive was at Susan's Nails, our family nail salon named after me, the first born in America. Má was our fearless leader calling all the shots, and we all admired her."

Powerful and driven, Lieu's mother was also at times harsh and critical and confusing to Lieu. "Má was more mystery than mother," she writes. "For years, I have tried to come up with theories to explain her erratic behavior. She could have had undiagnosed bipolar disorder . . . Or maybe she just never got to process the trauma from her refugee escape."  

Lieu's immigrant parents resist their daughter's desires to fit in with American culture when it clashes with their Vietnamese values, which seem to Lieu to be overly strict and limiting. "I had a deep envy for all the popular girls who were on the school volleyball team and wished I could be the same as everyone else, meaning I wished I could be white," Lieu writes. She wants to try out for the volleyball team, but her mother refuses to allow this. "She said we didn't have the money for the uniform." In typical adolescent fashion, Lieu tells her mother that she hates her. These would be the last words she spoke to her mother before she died from a botched "tummy tuck," performed by a sketchy doctor who targeted Vietnamese immigrants.

The memoir recounts Lieu's search to understand who her mother was, why she died, and why the doctor was able to continue practicing. "My family never did grief counseling, nor did anyone ask me if I was okay," Lieu writes. This leaves an emptiness that Lieu seeks to fill by recovering—and discovering—who her mother was and the meaning of her life.

Along with Lieu's exploration of her mother's journey is a narrative of the various paths Lieu takes after college to find her own passions. This includes a foray into acting, a bid that eventually pairs Lieu's artistic ambitions with her life-long quest to understand her mother. Lieu creates a stage performance based on her mother's life and untimely death, and this leads to a breakthrough. "All my other attempts to find out about her [mother] lead me to a dead end, but somehow this felt different."

Lieu finds comfort in communicating with the spirit of her mother through a psychic, who tells Lieu that her mother, "wants you to share your story with others. What you're doing now is important to her." Lieu's family never supported her quest to investigate her mother's life and death, but the psychic reading reassures her that "all of this was part of my path, the greater plan."

The narrative shifts places and timelines as Lieu investigates the family story and her own story, which covers a long span of time, decades. The memoir can feel busy at times, and occasionally the narrative flags as Lieu focuses on details she could have skipped, like the entire exchange of emails between Lieu and the daughter of the doctor who'd operated on her mother, who provides Lieu with medical records (the doctor was deceased by then).

But some of the most wrenching and poignant passages in the book are when Lieu reads those medical records and finds, to her surprise, that she was only 11 when her mother died, not 12, as she'd remembered. She also uncovers a jarring fact: that her mother had had another cosmetic surgery before the one that caused her death. "She had been chasing an ideal longer than I'd thought," Lieu writes.

The Manicurist's Daughter chronicles a post-war Vietnamese immigrant family's challenges, which Lieu's extraordinary mother overcame to become a successful business owner. It's also an affecting and richly layered story of a daughter's quest to know her mother, whom she lost too soon, and in turn, to understand who she is as her mother's daughter.