After patiently biding my time behind 30 other holds in the library, I finally got my hands on a copy of Carolyn Huynh’s debut novel The Fortunes of Jaded Women. I was hooked by the description of a multi-generational Vietnamese family trying to end a centuries-old curse. The novel delivers on most of its promises: it’s funny, touching, and sad. But it’s also a messy book full of messy characters that might leave you feeling unsatisfied by the open-ended final sentence.
Synopsis: For generations, the Dương sisters have been living under a curse. Ever since their great-great-grandmother Oahn Dương was cursed by a witch, no Dương woman has ever borne a son, and since only sons can invite their ancestors into their homes, the ghosts of the Dương family have been waiting to come home ever since. But a family curse is the least of their problems, as the Dương women’s personal squabbles and resentment have led to generations of estrangement. All this will change when Mai Nguyen, the eldest Dương sister, visits a psychic and learns that the family may be able to turn over a new leaf in the coming year. Armed with the psychic’s prediction of a funeral, a wedding, and the birth of her first grandchild, Mai decides to reunite her family, no matter what it takes.
My thoughts: Huynh opens the novel with the actions of a vindictive mother-in-law, who “like all slighted Vietnamese women…wished for the type of scarring that would make her wanton daughter-in-law and all her future kin ostracized forever.” Angered by Oahn Dương’s decision to leave her Vietnamese husband for a Cambodian man, her mother-in-law visits a witch who curses Oahn’s family tree to only bear daughters.
“There was nothing wrong with having Vietnamese daughters,” explains Huynh. “It’s how the world treated them that turned it into a curse.”
We see the realities of this curse when we meet the modern generation of Dương women. Mai Nguyen, Minh Phạm, and Khuyen Lam, all with loveless marriages, and all with daughters who don’t speak to them. The elder Dương women are estranged from their mother Ly Minh Dương because of her strict parenting and high expectations, and the younger branches of women (Priscilla, Thuy, Thao, Joyce, Elaine, Christine, Lily, and Rosie) are estranged from their mothers for the same reasons. All of the younger women are chasing men who don’t love them, stuck in unsatisfying careers, and trying to heal from the constant pressure of trying to achieve the unattainable ideal of “perfect Vietnamese daughter.”
Huynh paints this type of intergenerational trauma with light humorous strokes, but it’s clear she views the pressure placed on Vietnamese women as something darkly inevitable; a curse of societal expectations and unhappiness passed from grandmother to mother to daughter in an unceasing loop. Growing up as the poor daughters of an immigrant mother, the Dương women warn their daughters never to marry poor men, push them into high-paying careers, and wheedle them into having grandchildren, all in the hopes of helping them securing a good future. But the daughters don’t appreciate the constant meddling in their lives, and resent their mothers for attempting to control them, just as their mothers resented their grandmother for controlling them. With each generation, the Dương women try to change, vowing to never be like their own mothers, yet they all fall back into the same cycle of abuse.
“Do you think any of the women in our family are actually happy? Look at the disarray. No one talks to each other, they all blame my mother, my mother blames all of them, and honestly, no one actually gets what they want at the end of the day. All they do is blame some family curse, but the only curse I see here is self-inflicted.”-Carolyn Huynh, The Fortunes of Jaded Women
It’s a heartbreaking story to read, especially as Huynh writes these family dramas with such tenderness that one can only assume they’re based off of her own experiences (a fact she also admits in the acknowledgements). Even with the undercurrent of tragedy running through the novel, Huynh keeps it light and frothy, structuring the plot like a soap opera. The elder Dương women get into dramatic fights, the younger Dương women accidentally date the same lotharios, and the novel features a funeral, a wedding, and a birth, all in the span of 250 pages. The novel moves at a quick clip, but Huynh still pauses in the important moments, reminding the reader that even with so much conflict, the Dương women’s love for each other forms the novel’s center.
Despite the tumultuous relationship they all had with one another, between mother and daughters, sister and sister, the invisible filaments that bonded them was the same umbilical cord that kept the billions of stars together in the Milky Way.– Carolyn Huynh, The Fortunes of Jaded Women
Because the novel has so many main characters, it’s very much an ensemble cast, and only a few of the women get a chance to shine. The elder sisters are the most developed characters, and their story of estrangement with their mother is the most poignant and fully realized, a tale that encompasses the pain and sacrifices of immigration, and the negative emotional effects it can have on the second generation. Huynh lets us peek into the psyches of Mai, Minh, and Khuyen, women who resent their mother for playing favorites, while still yearning for her favor, so that we can understand how they can become women who pit their own daughters against one another. We can begin to understand how women who prefer years of familial estrangement to an apology are both victims and perpetrators of a society that punishes vulnerability. Huynh describes these women as the only ones “brave enough to tempt fate…[and]…alter the flow of the universe,” but that bravery comes with consequences; stubbornness, pride, and the belief above all that a mother’s job is to chart the course of her children’s future, whether they like it or not.
The mothers emerge from this story as its driving force and its most compelling characters, while the eight daughters suffer from a lack of distinctive characterization. There just isn’t enough room in the book for all of them, and while they each get their own vignettes, the repetitive mixture of boy trouble, identity crises, and general life ennui makes their chapters seem boring in comparison to those of the elder Dương women. There’s also a matter of the dialogue, which can come off as very “how do you do, fellow kids?” when Huynh uses so much Gen-Z slang. The Fortunes of Jaded Women is a novel that could have benefitted from another hundred or so pages to flesh out the daughters more. Huynh mentions in the acknowledgments that the novel began as a short story, and even with the added 200 pages, parts of it still feel too thinly sketched to be a full-fledged novel.
Final thoughts: The Fortunes of Jaded Women is a sweeping story about intergenerational trauma. Although it dabbles in magical realism, it emphasizes the nature of man-made curses, and discusses how cycles of resentment and societal pressure can cause families to self-destruct. The novel emphasizes the importance of turning inwards towards our own families and communities, and forgiving those who may have wronged us in the hopes of doing good. Ultimately, althought Huynh believes the curse of intergenerational trauma is man-made, it’s unclear whether she believes that such cycles can ever truly end, or if these women are doomed to repeat the same cycles over and over for eternity.