About a year ago I spent a long weekend with my husband in San Francisco. On that trip I brought Dana Sachs’s memoir, The House on Dream Street (Seal Press, 2003) with me everywhere. On BART, MUNI, on the ferry across the bay, at the Napa train station. I read it during every pause in our trip and obviously couldn’t put it down.
So when I picked up Sachs’ novel, If You Lived Here (William Morrow, 2007), I wondered how much of her memoir would creep back into her novel. Both were set in post-war Vietnam and centered around American women.
But that’s where the similarities ended.
In her novel, Sachs’ protagonist Shelley Marino is a forty-two year old wife and step-mother. She’s happily married to Martin Marino, who followed in his parents’ footsteps as the town’s mortician. Shelly, giving up her dream of traveling the world–and a college degree–marries at a young age and quickly develops into a competent and trustworthy business partner to her husband.
Something is missing in Shelley’s life, though. It’s not the missed opportunities to travel or finish college. It’s the chance to be a mother. After six failed pregnancies, Shelley talks to Martin about adopting a baby. He takes a while to come around to the idea. After all, at that point he has two grown sons of his own, is in his 50s, and feels like he’s done with the whole midnight feeding and changing diapers thing.
When the adoption agency calls the Marinos to tell them they have a baby in Vietnam who needs a good home, Shelley is determined to fly to Vietnam to bring her son home. But Martin, who served in Vietnam during the war, has a different idea. He claims he doesn’t want to be a father for a third time, but deep down he’s still haunted a tragic loss during the war in Vietnam.
So Shelley and her Viet Khieu (or overseas Vietnamese) friend Mai fly to Hanoi and walk into a maze of red tape. For Mai, who has a terrible secret of her own, it’s a bittersweet homecoming.
Sachs’ characters are as alive as the ones she wrote about in her memoir. She delicately touches upon the internal conflicts of Martin, who tries to block out his time in Vietnam; of Mai, who suddenly fled her homeland to erase her own terrible mistake; and of Shelley, who is forced to choose between her loving husband and a baby son she’s never met.
Dana Sachs is a talented story teller who effortlessly weaves in rich details of Vietnamese culture and the ways in which Americans and Vietnamese view the war decades later.