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The Last Time I Saw Mother

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"AN OFTEN LYRICAL AND ALWAYS TOUGH-MINDED DEBUT . . . Provides rare insight into the three cultures--Spanish, Chinese, and Filipino--that coexist in the Philippines."
--The New York Times Book Review

Caridad's mother never writes. So when a letter arrives for her in Sydney from Manila, Caridad doesn't even recognize her mother's handwriting. There is more distance than just miles between the two women. And that is why Caridad is called home. Her mother needs to talk. And to reveal a secret that has been weighing heavily on her for years.

As Caridad hears at last the unspoken stories, and the never forgotten tragedy of the war years, she will learn a startling truth that will change her life forever. For Caridad is not who she thinks she is. . . .

"Beautifully written . . . Reading each chapter is like having a conversation with a close friend."
--Chicago Tribune

"A sensitive . . . portrait of a family of Filipina women . . . The novel illuminates much modern Philippine history."
--The Boston Globe

352 pages, Paperback

First published July 30, 1996

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About the author

Arlene J. Chai

5 books49 followers
Arlene J. Chai (b. 1955) is a Filipino-Chinese-Australian who migrated to Australia with her parents and sisters in 1982 because of the political upheaval. She became an advertising copywriter at George Patterson's advertising agency in 1972 and has been working there since. It is there that she met her mentor Bryce Courtney, who continuously inspires her to improve her work.

She won the Louis Braille Adult Audio Book of the year for her novel "On the Goddess Rock" in 1999.

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5 stars
540 (34%)
4 stars
545 (34%)
3 stars
369 (23%)
2 stars
91 (5%)
1 star
41 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 145 reviews
Profile Image for Teri Pardue.
176 reviews10 followers
February 9, 2017
"The word itself creates an empty sensation. Try saying it now. "Why?" Notice how your tongue touches nothing when you form the word with your mouth. Feel the gap, the space inside your mouth, that it created. The air. It is a place that needs filling. It is missing an answer" (p. 56).

I'm giving this book five stars, not because it's the most profound book I've ever read. It's not the most well written or poetic. But wow, it will stay with me for a long time! There were points, while reading about Manila during and after the war - and the Japanese occupation - that I was in tears. The effects of WWII on Manila never struck me as powerfully as when I read this novel. Not in history class, or visiting places like Corregidor and Intramuros, or reading historical books. Maybe I was open to it in a different way, or maybe something in her words just brought it all alive for me, but I am grateful.
I recommend this book to everyone who has a love for the Philippines and its resilient, compassionate, beautiful people.
Profile Image for Nina.
102 reviews13 followers
December 5, 2010
A conversation between a mother and her teenage daughter:

Daughter: "Mom, am I adopted?"

Mother: "Of course not. What made you think that?"

D: "Aunt Lucy said that I don't look like you or Dad."

M: "That's because you take after both of us. Our features are thoroughly mixed in you that if you smile, your lips spread thinly like mine, but when you're serious, your lips purse like Dad's."

D: "You're really sure I'm not adopted?"

M: "A hundred percent sure. Even a million. I gave birth to you, or have you forgotten that? Why are you thinking of those things anyway? Have you been watching too much telenovelas lately?"

D: "No. But I read a book, The Last Time I Saw Mother by Arlene J. Chai. Caridad learns that she was just adopted, and the circumstances surrounding her birth are told to her by three different women: her mother Thelma, her aunt Emma, and her cousin Ligaya, which also touches upon the history of their families before the Japanese occupation and then further afterward."

M: "And because of that, you thought you might be adopted? Was the book any good?"

D: "Well, in my opinion, the plot is interesting. I mean, it shows four sides of the story. However, although the author wanted to do four voices, to me it felt like their voices are one and they same."

M: "So it was not that good?"

D: "Ideally, it is very good, Mom, since the author wanted to touch on the lives of four women with the history of the Philippines as a backdrop. It's just that because the characters sounded the same, and they also sounded a bit uncertain with respect to their reflections on the past, the whole book became more like a narrative lesson in history, than a compelling story of family and relationships."

M: "I see. Well at least it made you learn a bit of history, which you're not very good in. But if you said that the characters almost sound the same, how were you able to distinguish them from each other?"

D: "Well the book is divided into four parts, each dedicated for a single character. And they also have a bit of distinction in the tone in that Thelma is resolute, Caridad is confused, then contemplative, then understanding, Emma is regretful, and Ligaya is bitter. But that's just the difference as far as this story goes."

M: "So from what you've told me, you didn't seem to have enjoyed the story."

D: "As I was telling you Mom, I enjoyed the premise. I just felt that it could have been written better. There was too much drama going on but I guess that's understandable, since the premise is intended to be dramatic. But the characters are too digressing in their personal stories, and quite frankly, it's reminiscent of typical Filipino telenovelas where a child is adopted early on and only learns of the truth when they are older, though this one does not have all the pathetic complications as those on television. And the ending could have been better, but I guess it would suffice."

M: "Well that explains your question about being adopted. You read something that is like a telenovela! You mean I gave you your allowance and you spent it on an unsatisfying book?"

D: "It was cheap Mom, so I didn't really lose that much."

M: "So what happened in the ending? Why were you not satisfied?"

D: "Why don't you just read the book, Mom? I can't stand here all day and talk to you about that book."

M: "And why can't you stay and talk to me? I told you you're not going out to that party."

D: "You're never this strict with my brother! Maybe I am adopted!"

M: "Go to your room. And give me that book."
58 reviews33 followers
April 18, 2018
"It is the way life is. Like a wheel that turns, sometimes it misses you,sometimes it crushes you. At times life gives and at times it takes away. And each day you wake up and breathe and live is but another day's reprieve from death."-pg.153

"In the evenings, the dark hides the ugliness, but daylight forces us to live in a nightmare."-pg.154

These are just two of the quotes that make up this beautifully written debut, a tale told through the perspectives of a few different female relatives effected by war,kept secrets, and the meaning of family. It began a bit on the slow side,and I found not all the character chapters always kept me interested; but worked its way towards a fantastic middle and end with some superb characters all the same. Well worth the read!!
Profile Image for Carla Cabs.
8 reviews7 followers
August 14, 2012
I am once again reunited with my favorite book of all time, “The Last Time I Saw Mother” by Arlene Chai. This is a very good book. It’s like having an intimate talk with a friend, as she slowly unveils the story of the four most powerful female characters she has ever met in her entire life. Something about this book never ceases to appeal to me. Perhaps it’s because of the fact that the author didn’t fail to capture the humanity and heroism of women from so many generations, upholding family tradition and creating their own. Everyone should grab a copy of this. It’s a real treasure to have on top of your bedside table or in your bookshelf.

Anyway, there were a lot of quotations that I now find very much applicable to who I am now. I guess this is also a reason why I keep reading it over and over; I find my words lost in its pages and reading them brings them to life… at least, for me.

“Every unhappy person thinks her unhappiness is unique.” (p. 14)
Absolutely true. There are people you will meet in your lifetime who will share their lamentations with you and end it with “you don’t understand what I am going through.” Maybe some time in our lifetime we have said this line already. I find the selfishness of human emotion quite outstanding; they talk about their pain, but they don’t want consolation. They speak of their burden and how the world is on their backs, but they don’t want to share the load. It is almost quite insensitive of them to actually assume that the person they are talking to is apathetic of their grief. In doing so, they do not realize that with that assumption, they leave that person wondering how in the world can they help this friend when they “don’t understand what they’re going through.”

“Migrants, I think, are people who are never whole, never completely in one place.” (p.17)
My cousin got married just this July. In preparation for her wedding, she came home some time in April. Although I can see how much she had missed the Philippines, I guess it has always lingered in my mind that she also missed New Jersey. They migrated there about 10 years ago, and only come to the Philippines after every two or four years. So she was born here and became a lady there, graduated high school here and college there, had her first kiss here and her last first kiss there. I guess in a way she does have two homes. Sad part is, she can’t be home at the same time.

“The poor are not far from sight. They live in little pockets on the periphery of these affluent subdivisions. A constant reminder to the rich that there is another side to life [sic].” (pgs. 30-31)
Just this February, I accompanied a friend to paint a mural on the 29th floor of the RCBC Plaza in Makati City. From there, the view was amazing. There was a big glass window opposite the wall she was painting on, so when the sun begins to set, you can definitely see the colors. Slightly tilting my head, I can also see (in spite of my great fear for heights) one of the premiere hospitals in the Metro – the Makati Medical Hospital. Right behind the wall of that hospital is about 60 families living on someone else’s land – squatters. When the other side of the wall gets cured of the gravest illnesses, the other side dies from some of the simplest.

“There is something I have learned about the dead. They live on. They turn into dust and they become part of the earth and the wind blows them up. They are in the very air we breathe. And their words live on with our minds, returning without being called.” (p. 50)
Need I say more?

This book has proven to be one of the most compelling dramas in Philippine literature. Not only does it highlight the suffering and hardship of the Filipina, it also gives you a clearer picture of what the past was like. Somehow, that picture gets to you and reeducates you to be a more critical member of the society we live in today.

There are a lot more lines from this book that has proven its worth in my life. I am sure that when you read Arlene Chai’s The Last Time I Saw Mother, you too will say the same thing. I believe that the most compelling part of the book, the line that sums everything up, is this:

“Right and wrong are judgments we make on hindsight. But at that moment of choice, we make our decisions the best way we know how.” (p.328)

It’s a comforting statement for those who regret something they have said or done in the past. Relieving even, if I might add. I know now for a fact that people, after reading this book, become more critical of their life experiences, find that it’s better to listen than to talk, and have a new found respect for the Filipina that they never knew.
Profile Image for Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship.
1,128 reviews1,202 followers
January 25, 2014
Two stars for "it's okay, but not very good." This novel had potential, but the storyline feels half-baked, bogged down in the life stories of several different characters with identical voices.

Caridad is 40 years old and living as an immigrant in Australia when her mother summons her home to the Philippines to tell her the truth about her parentage. The novel is told in the first person by four narrators: Caridad, her mother Thelma, her aunt Emma, and her cousin Ligaya. [It’s always weird when I encounter a character with my name. Doesn’t happen too often though, possibly because it sounds like the name of a boring aunt.] Multiple narrators are too common a pretension of debut authors; unfortunately, even experienced authors struggle to distinguish them, and Chai fails to do so here. Had the book been written in third person, more personality might have shone through, though across the board there's little to make these characters stand out. For the most part they're subdued; I enjoyed Ligaya's story most because her emotions are closest to the surface, but the others are quite passive.

Meanwhile, their stories have potential but fail to come to life. If Chai had chosen to focus on one or two aspects of the story rather than covering everything that's ever happened to everyone, it likely would have had more resonance. The most vivid sections discuss the family's experiences during the Japanese occupation and the difficult recovery afterwards; I say "the family's experiences" because too often Chai drifts into textbook-like overviews rather than sticking to the characters' own lives. "The glow could be seen as far as fifty miles away," that kind of thing. As for the big secret about Caridad's origins, it's rather anticlimactic, though the moral dilemma is handled well enough, without idealizing or vilifying any of the women involved. But I found it impossible to believe that in a large and fairly close-knit family, Caridad wouldn't have discovered the secret decades before. It also seemed a little too tidy for the fact of the secret to be the root of Caridad's current marital troubles.

Anyway, there's nothing offensively bad about this book: the writing is adequate, the imagery mostly works, there's a decent sense of place. The secret is a weak framing device, however, and the story and characters on the bland side. Not recommended unless you have a strong interest in the Philippines.
Profile Image for ash.
290 reviews231 followers
April 19, 2022
enjoyable, but not as excellent as i had initially hoped it would be.

it's so rare for me to read a book with so many familiar places and names mentioned. the history, superstitions, culture, etc. were so comforting to read about, and i would have given this a higher rating solely because of my bias, but i found the overall execution a bit weak. the plot was interesting of course, but the narrative voices lacked strength.

the main conflict of Caridad's past was the least compelling to be honest, while the historical events mentioned were definitely the stronger points of the book, though i found them a bit distant and textbook-like. they lacked a bit of personal touch, a bit of heart.

anyway, i still like this book and i do think it is good! i would recommend it to a lot of people.
Profile Image for Zeni.
12 reviews
February 4, 2009
My rating of this book is definitely influenced of my appreciation for the content, but it is very well written too. My Auntie Gay gave me this book for Christmas in 1999! I JUST finished reading it and have a new perspective on what it was like for my parents and aunts and uncles to grow up in the Philippines. This is a "must read" for filipino females of my generation.
22 reviews
October 23, 2018
Una descripción muy íntima de la cultura filipina y sus matices, contada desde la perspectiva de 4 mujeres. Nos habla de cómo distintas culturas interactuan al interior del mismo país como producto de una historia reiterada de ocupaciones violentas y abusivas por parte de distintas potencias. Me encantó porque me ayudó a entender muchas cosas sobre la historia de este país desde una perspectiva muy personal.
Profile Image for Alyssa.
222 reviews34 followers
June 4, 2015
Compelling and touching. It made me tear up more than a few times.

I started reading this before, when I was way younger because I got curious why my sister bought it, and I stopped reading after a few pages because I got bored but thinking about it now, it's mainly because I'm drawn into a different kind of book or genre way back then. And this afternoon, without anything to do, I decided to start reading it again. I got hooked that I finished front to back in one seating.

I like the way the truth was told in three voices. Because I believe that the absolute truth cannot be given by just one person, it can be known by collecting all of the truths of everyone involved. And that's what happened here. I noticed that the way we decide in our lives are greatly affected by our experiences. We don't do the things we do just because, we do it always for a reason. I find the women; Caridad, Thelma, Emma, and Ligaya, all strong in their own right. I wouldn't have known what to do if I was in any of their shoes.

This is one of my favorite books from now on. There are books you read that's good, that made you pass the time and made you learn a lesson or two. And there are books that changes you, that touches your soul with the words written on it or by making you wonder about your life or your whole being. This book is the latter that's why it's so precious. Amazing.
14 reviews
June 3, 2013
I found this book on one of my sister's shelves, and I'm surprised at the rate that I find books with this genre. I've just finished reading Memoirs of a Geisha and this one pops up.

Honestly, I read most of this in one day, but I couldn't help but admit that I couldn't read smoothly for I had to stop and take deep breaths and look at the way my life is today. Also, some of the emotions that they felt in the story might have had a bit of similarity to the few hardships that I've been through (or at least, conjured up in my head) so it was as if I was reading something written especially for me.

I love this even more because of the era. I find war eras really interesting especially when it involved the Japanese. Although I've been fascinated by them for a long time, I can't help but commend Arlene Chai for helping me see how I shouldn't be taking Philippine History for granted. They way Emma narrated the return of Gen. Douglas McArthur sent a wave of happiness through me that I wouldn't get from years and years of reading Araling Panlipunan textbooks.

<3 All hearts.
Profile Image for Sofie.
13 reviews
January 29, 2014
The writing is nice and the story flows well. The problem's with the characters and the plot. If this was meant to introduce non-Filipinos to Filipino culture and history, sure, but maybe for most Filipinos, it would be too reminiscent of the typical soap aired on TV. The characters too are rather bland or one-dimensional, maybe except for Thelma and Ligaya, but Ligaya was annoying and told a lot of stuff not really relevant to the story.
Also, I especially disliked how the author tried to insert random historical facts into the story, they just looked really awkward with the really nice writing style.
But I did love the writing style Arlene Chai is marvellous at creating and describing settings. The book made me feel nostalgic.
Profile Image for Kwe.
22 reviews7 followers
December 28, 2019
Had a hard time putting this book down! I didn't expect a detailed depiction from the time of the Japanese occupation in the Philippines. Just. Wow. ✨
Profile Image for ely.
23 reviews
May 8, 2023

skl na napanaginipan kong ni-rate ko siya ng 4 stars dito hahah. but yeah, i really loved the story. this book was given to me by my professor in SHS back in 2016 or 2017 yata and i can't believe na she traded this for my paper towns book. di deserve hahaha charice. but since then i just put it on my shelf and added in my long list of tbr pile. i never paid attention to this book din because it looks old and ancient and syempre as a teen i was gearing more towards YA kaya di ko talaga to masyado napagtuonan ng pansin.

everytime i would pick this up hanggang dun lang ako sa first part na umuwi si caridad ng pinas. tas matatambak ulit sa shelf then babasahin then same routine. but i guess it's an intuition na i can feel that this book is good. and finally, tama ako. not only that this book was good, but this also felt important. reading it felt like no matter how you listen to stories about the war from your lola/lolo you know na you're safe kasi they are with you. and that we have already achieved freedom from the previous historical opression. na dahil kinekwento na lang siya ng nga nakatatanda sa atin, di na ulit yun mangyayari kahit na it was such a cruel past. ganun yung epekto niya sa akin.

at first, parang bagot pa ako kasi di talaga ako aware na historical fiction to at iniisip ko na bakit kailangan pang banggitin yung giyera at marcos regime eh gusto lang naman malaman ni caridad yung totoo? pero now i understand na there's a reason why the war was mentioned.

i have no bad things to say except sa manugang ni thelma na talaga nga namang... ay nako. anyway, ang ganda ng pacing ng story kasi kahit historical fiction parang nakikinig lang ako sa kwento ng lola/lolo ko. even the ending, it was well-wrapped up na para lang akong nanood ng movie. i would definitely reread this everytime i have a different perspective. i also feel na this is something that will stick to me and will often think about every once in a while.

sana required reading to sa mga high school ngayon kasi ganun siya ka-importante and relevant.
Profile Image for annapi.
1,628 reviews14 followers
June 5, 2021
Caridad is called home to the Philippines by her mother, who has finally decided to tell her the personal history she has kept to herself. The present time is in the 1980's just after the People Power revolution that toppled the Marcoses from power, and the story of the past that unfolds is mostly set around WWII, before, during and just after the Japanese occupation.

This was an almost eerie read for me, because the characters' stories here are similar to stories I have heard about other people of the time. My father was 13 during the war, and he had told us a few things that made this book very vivid to me. I myself was in college and volunteered as a poll worker during the election that led to the 1986 revolution, and was at EDSA myself for a day. The Philippines comes alive in these pages which bring back a lot of memories for me. It's difficult to rate the story itself because the history and the places are so personally familiar, but at times the pace was a bit slow. Still, this is a solid 4-star read with engaging characters and lots of family dynamics to explore.
Profile Image for Augustin Ra.
40 reviews
September 27, 2022
Reading this feels like having an intimate conversation with your family. The story was told by special characters of great significance who unveiled the truth slowly to let the main character understand how everything happened. It was also nice to read a book in which the setting was the Philippines during the Marcos Sr. regime. It pictured what was life back then for families of different classes.

This book also shows how a mother's love is so unconditional and won't let any child suffer if the opportunity is presented. Regardless, of whether being a mother is based on blood or not, the character of the mothers here didn't become less of a mother and as a person. They just wanted what was good for the child and in the end, they also give it to her by telling her the truth.
Profile Image for Tris.
391 reviews23 followers
May 28, 2023
the last time i saw mother tells four women's stories starting from the 1940s to what i think is 1990. through the perspectives of two generations of women, we learn about the japanese occupation of the Philippines from 42 to 46 and later the people power revolution that ended the 21-year marcos regime in 86. given that the women had of course some very similar struggles (as a woman, daughter, mother, wife), it's hard to tell apart their voices. in the middle it just reads like a history lesson instead of a story about family. my initial guess about caridad's parentage was much more dramatic, but we get the confirmation not even a quarter through and then comes the history lesson. we do need to hear more of these voices but i just wish it was done in a way that's less "information overload"—as caridad herself says.
Profile Image for carmela.
34 reviews4 followers
September 8, 2021
Never thought I'd be rating a school novel 5 stars. It was chilling, unconventional and intriguing. I'd reread in the future, with caution as the story gets dark at some points. But this is a beautiful novel with spectacular writing, would recommend to all looking for a good family-centered drama.

PS. I write shorter reviews for novels I read for school.
Profile Image for Mary.
78 reviews2 followers
August 1, 2015
"A remarkable first novel filled with family secrets and the intersection of personal and world histories, told through four mesmerizing voices." -- Amy Tan

Amy Tan summed it up perfectly. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it brought out my Filipina pride. I first learned about this book from a small commentary in one of the fashion magazines.

Before the family secret was revealed, I had a very strong inclination of what the secret was that brought Caridad back to the Philippines. Fortunately, that wasn't the main focus of the book. The focus was on the relationships between these four women (sisters, aunts, cousins, daughters). Where Amy Tan focuses on the relationship between mothers and daughters, Arlene Chai emphasizes the extended family ties that Filipinos are known for.

Chai did a wonderful job of writing in 4 distinct voices...you can really hear the differences, while at the same time there are some similarities in they way they told their stories re-enforcing that these women are bonded to one another.

I also enjoyed the interweaving of the historical events into the personal lives of each character...it provided a mini-Filipino history, painfully reminded me of the stories my Lola (grandmother) shared with me about her experiences with World War II as well as flashbacked to the moment in time when I heard that Aquino was assassinated. I also dig seeing Filipino words in a novel meant for pleasure and Chai explained the context of each Filipino word in away that wasn't simply a definition/translation. From the way she used the words, non-Tagalog speaking folks could guess what it meant.

The ending of the book was pleasantly touching, which was very refreshing because most of the other books that I recently finished left me with a blah feeling at the end. Finally, I discovered an awesome quote in the book that avid readers will appreciate. It's a statement one of the characters in the book says in describing why he loved to read and how he reads: "Much effort went into writing this... so one must do justice to the writer and read it carefully. Every word has a place in these pages. There is a reason why they are there."
Profile Image for Basic Bookish.
11 reviews
July 19, 2020
The Last Time I Saw Mother is a powerful story of what it means to be a woman in love, riches, poverty, war, and secrecy. Caridad goes home from Sydney to the Philippines when her mother writes her a letter admonishing her to do so. During this trip, she uncovers the life of three women: Mama Thelma, Tia Emma, and cousin Ligaya, the culmination of which was her adoption into her mother's family.

These three women had powerful stories to tell and strong motives for their actions, which didn't always make them the hero from the perspective of others.

There were moments that made me stop to contemplate the weight of their experiences. I also cried in some scenes, because they're just that powerful and sincere. You know where the three women are coming from, and you want the best for each of them, but it's not always possible.

The writing style is simple, and I believe that's what made the narrative so effective. She didn't over-emphasize the grief of war, but let their actions and dialogue relay them to the readers.

There's also the educational aspect of the book. You get to learn the Filipino, Spanish, and Chinese cultures that came together in Philippine society. Their experiences of WWII was also superbly written.

You should read this book at least once in your life. I truly believe this is the kind of storytelling and heart we need right now.
Profile Image for Sondang.
203 reviews16 followers
July 26, 2007
This is the first book I found when I tried to go to the second-hand bookshop.
Actually, I choose this book (which only cost me 10.000 rupiahs at 2000) because its condition was still good.
The cover still looked smooth, it looked just as a new book.
But after reading it, I really really thankful for decision to buy that book :D (10 rebu jaman kuliah gethuw)
The story is about a Philipine Woman – I think she was Chinese most of the time-, who moved to Australia with her husband. She always fell something wrong with her relationship with her mother, but didn’t exactly know what–or maybe deep in her heart she knew it but deny it-.
When her marriage starting to fell apart, she tried to look into her heart to find the emptiness she fell all this time –which is also affected all her relationship with others-, and at the same time her mother asked her to come to Philipinne because she wanted to tell her something she’s been hiding all along.
I love the way Arlene wrote about the relationship, and the background.
Well somehow –again- the cultural background made it such an interesting story.
The story also described the situation in the war, and in Imelda Marcos era, and the way Philippine people think about that.
Toko Buku Kecil di Jurangmangu : 10.000 *grin*
Profile Image for Kassie .
80 reviews1 follower
August 30, 2016
Real rating: 3.5

This book is one of favorites now. The story is a purely great one about a family told by a generation of Filipino women and each of their unique stories. Emma's tells the story of the Philippines during WWII, Ligaya's story is about the struggles she faced in her early teenage years, and Thelma's story is about a married woman's life. Caridad is the woman who brings all these stories together.

I rated it a 3.5 because it's a book I wouldn't normally read and that lowered a little of my rating. The Last Time I Saw Mother was the book I read to get me into reading more books that are out of my comfort zone, and it didn't disappoint.

This book is such an underrated one that isn't getting as much praise as it should and that really saddens me. Filipinos, especially, should be reading this.
Profile Image for Judy Grace Legaspi.
33 reviews17 followers
February 27, 2012
skipped many parts; I guess too much beating around the bush, which is alright if the climax of the story is really to die for. But I don't remember reading any climatic part at all. Sorry. 3 This also illustrates one cliche of the Philippine drama industry.
Profile Image for guia ☘.
16 reviews
February 27, 2022
"Do we not all look at the one thing, and each see it differently? So what is right to one may be wrong to another."


I actually did not get this book for myself - it was given to me by a friend on my birthday who thought maybe I'd love this book, and surprise, I did - I absolutely loved it. I can't say I had the most perfect relationship with my mother, but I would say its a great one. One significant thing that got me hooked to the book is how the main character - and the author herself have one thing in common with me - we're Filipino. So I was familiar with the traditions, and some things she has mentioned in the book. It also touches on some important events in our history as Filipinos, namely what it was like during the Marcoses' 20-year rule, the subsequent People's Power revolution, and more, which I think is great because I believe more people should know what our fellow ancestors have been through and what it took for Filipinos and Philippines to be who we are today. I love the writing style of Arlene Chai, I loved that she used multiple and shifted first-person perspectives on Thelma, Emma, Ligaya, and Caridad. The four women's experiences, on the other hand, are practically identical and occasionally veer into tired reflections on life and love. There is a *predictable* plot twist for me, but still, needless to say LOVE LOVE LOVED the book, and I definitely recommend this to everyone, especially since its a fellow Filipino's work, and I believe that we should appreciate our kababayan!
Profile Image for Owen Desalisa.
14 reviews
January 26, 2023
Hooked with the first chapter! This is a mesmerizing tale about a Filipino-Chinese woman, Caridad, who left the Philippines to live in Australia with her husband and daughter. Her mother hates when she calls and never writes to her, but Caridad continues to send her letters.

Caridad was then surprised when she receives a letter from her mother asking her to come home to talk.

The 1995 debut novel includes three other perspectives of women in Caridad's family, Tia Emma, cousin Ligaya, and her mother, Thelma.

Its satisfying that Caridad's lyrical perspective in the book makes me feel like shes talking to me personally and not with an audience. While the other perspective makes me feel like they are speaking to me as if i am Caridad.

The story revolves around three generational history of the family in the eyes of each women throughout hardship, peace, and love. This also includes the Japanese occupation to American liberation and the end of the corruption of the Marcos Regime.

I definitely enjoyed reading it throughout tho i felt like the ending feels abrupt and lacking. The story is about knowing oneself and feeling whole, yet i feel far from that when it ended the way it is.

"Right and wrong are judgments we make on hindsight. But at the moment of choice, we make our decisions in the best way we know how."

It is an exceptional read. 4/5 stars. Go read it, guys. 🎉
Profile Image for chantalcovarrubias.
47 reviews18 followers
January 24, 2021
I’ve had a copy of this book since July last year but only got around to reading it yesterday – I couldn’t put it down. After months on my bookshelf, it only took me a few hours to devour its pages.

The reason it took me so long is because I had read Eating Fire and Drinking Water first back in 2018 and I loved it SO MUCH. Knowing that Arlene Chai had written this first and it had brought her recognition, I really wanted to like it too... and I do!

It’s the thought-provoking and deeply moving historical fiction that I had expected it to be, possibly even more poignant.

The events in the book were stuff I’d learned in my classes but reading about the characters’ tales during the colonial period and post-EDSA years have taught me more about our people’s struggle than my lessons.

It also accurately represents the hodgepodge of cultures and traditions that my country is. The family dynamics are also very realistic and that’s why I connected best with Ligaya. I grew up in a big family too that had to overcome our father’s early death and persist through life with just ourselves to rely on.

All in all, I really identified with this work and solidified Arlene Chai as my favorite Filipino author.

Profile Image for Jamie.
312 reviews16 followers
June 3, 2018
I sailed through this. Simply and beautifully written. It reminded me of The Joy Luck Club, mainly because it's about the experiences of four different women and the impact that their country's cultural and political circumstances had on their lives. It's broken into different sections, each narrated by one of the four females who have different perspectives on one sad story that spans decades. I loved how the perception I had of one character was vastly changed when I read their story from their point of view. Chai did an excellent job of showing how understanding different peoples' experiences and lives can help shape a fuller and more compassionate idea of the circumstances of everyone involved.

Also, another classic example of how reading fiction written about another country by someone from that country can teach you more about the history of it than you can learn in school. There is so much I didn't know about the Philippines' history or the population's demographic. I'm hovering between giving this 4 or 5 stars. It's so good but not necessarily a book I feel compelled to reread...?
Profile Image for Kimberly Ann.
1,658 reviews
March 10, 2020
Caridad, separated from her husband, is living with her daughter Marla (a pianist) in Sydney. When Caridad receives the letter from her mother stating: "Come home Caridad. I need to speak to you. Mama", she catches the first flight back to Manila, Philippines.

There, Caridad is told the secrets of her life, in three parts by Mama Thelma, Tia Emma, & Cousin Ligaya. Each only telling their own part in Caridad's life with the admonishment referring to the others: "I can not tell you more, it is her part to tell".

So the truth of Caridad's life unfolds from her family, a truth which she was somewhat always aware of, but never fully in its reality.

The story begins before WWII and takes us through the occupation of the Philippines by the Japanese during WWII (which is a good history lesson) and up to modern times.

I liked the characters and there was no condemnation on my part for their actions; people do what they must do in order to live and these women were no exception.

I found the book to be easily read and despite the simplicity of the writing I found the story to be compelling, interesting, and poignant. So much so that I was up until after midnight reading.
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