Owner of a Lonely Heart: A Memoir

Image of Owner of a Lonely Heart: A Memoir
Release Date: 
July 4, 2023
Reviewed by: 

“a quietly affecting memoir about family connection and disconnection.”

Owner of a Lonely Heart by award-winning novelist Beth Nguyen is a quietly affecting memoir about family connection and disconnection. From the haunting opening line, the memoir is tinged with yearning and sorrow: "Over the course of my life I have known less than twenty-four hours with my mother." This fact is the thrust of the memoir, as Nguyen searches for missing pieces of her family's history. Nguyen's father fled Vietnam as Saigon fell in April 1975 with Nguyen and her sister, who were babies, but left behind their biological mother. "There's a long story here," Nguyen writes, "and it's one I keep having to tell, trying to understand it. Because there is no getting away from our origin stories."

The Vietnam war cast an indelible shadow over her family, from their arrival in the United States to the contemporary moment, when Nguyen has children of her own, a narrative that powerfully demonstrates the long-lasting generational repercussions of war and immigration on identity, on family, and on a sense of belonging. "The history of my family is also the history of multiple wars, of colonization, of imperialism, of loss and diaspora," Nguyen writers.  

Much of the narrative circles around Nguyen's quest to connect with her birth mother, who arrived in the U.S. nearly two decades after Nguyen. She examines bits of the story that she's heard from her father, her uncles, her grandmother, and her stepmother—the woman who raised Nguyen—trying to find a seam. It's an unstable narrative, one that shifts as she searches for what really happened when her father left Vietnam on April 29, the night before Saigon fell. "Once, he said that she [Nguyen's biological mother] had gotten lost in the crowd after an explosion. Another time he said the bridges between her mother's house had been destroyed [where Nguyen's mother had been living after her parents separated]; another time, guards wouldn't let her pass. The simpler story—that there was no time or way to make another choice—makes so much more sense."

Nguyen was a college sophomore when she first met her biological mother, who lives in Boston. Mothers and mothering is a theme throughout the book. "We all have mothers," Nguyen writes, "but sometimes it takes years to realize who they are." During the few visits she's had with her "Boston mother" over the years, she coaxes her to talk about the past, but her mother is laconic, perhaps to avoid confronting trauma. "I asked questions I'd asked before. Do you remember anything about the day I was born, or when my sister was born." Nguyen's mother's responses are curt. "Not really."

Rather than a contiguous narrative, the book's chapters are like a series of essays: sometimes on Nguyen's childhood and coming-of-age as a Vietnamese immigrant in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a conservative Midwestern town; sometimes about mothering her own children; in one chapter she contemplates her name; and another is a portrait of her Vietnamese grandmother.

She interrogates photos and artifacts from the past, seeking to glean meaning from them, more clues to her fragmented family story. The chronology shifts across generations and locations, the text at times resembling a sensation that Nguyen herself has felt tacking between past and present, between her father and stepmother and siblings in Michigan and her mother and stepfather and half-siblings in Boston. "I felt a sense of time falling into itself—geographies bending," she writes.  

The book is filled with honest and sometimes painful insights that Nguyen discovers in her search for truths about the past. "Sometimes I feel like if I don't make the effort to see my mother and family in Boston we will never see each other again," she writes. "But I now know the strange secret of this: absence gets easier, not harder."

Wisely, Nguyen offers no pat answers or disingenuous happy endings to the questions she grapples with about identity, history, and trauma. "All my life I have felt like an imposter daughter, an imposter Vietnamese, an imposter American, and often an imposter mother," she writes. "When does a refugee stop being a refugee?" Nguyen asks, then provides her own sorrowful response: "The answer is in the question itself, forever unanswerable." Readers, though, will appreciate Nguyen's heartfelt and poignant search.