Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Rate this book
Brilliant, heartbreaking and highly original, Ocean Vuong's debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, and a testament to the redemptive power of storytelling.

This is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family's history that began before he was born. It tells of Vietnam, of the lasting impact of war, and of his family's struggle to forge a new future. And it serves as a doorway into parts of Little Dog's life his mother has never known - episodes of bewilderment, fear and passion - all the while moving closer to an unforgettable revelation.

242 pages, Paperback

First published June 4, 2019

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

Ocean Vuong

17 books10k followers
Ocean Vuong is the author of the debut novel, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous, out from Penguin Press (2019). He is also the author of the critically acclaimed poetry collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a New York Times Top 10 Book of 2016, winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize, the Whiting Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. A Ruth Lilly fellow from the Poetry Foundation, his honors include fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, The Elizabeth George Foundation, The Academy of American Poets, and the Pushcart Prize.

Vuong's writings have been featured in The Atlantic, Harpers, The Nation, New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and American Poetry Review, which awarded him the Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets. Selected by Foreign Policy magazine as a 2016 100 Leading Global Thinker, alongside Hillary Clinton, Ban Ki-Moon and Justin Trudeau, Ocean was also named by BuzzFeed Books as one of “32 Essential Asian American Writers” and has been profiled on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” PBS NewsHour, Teen Vogue, VICE, The Fantastic Man, and The New Yorker.

Born in Saigon, Vietnam, he lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, where he serves as an Assistant Professor in the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at Umass-Amherst.

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
88,625 (38%)
4 stars
83,168 (36%)
3 stars
43,550 (18%)
2 stars
12,112 (5%)
1 star
3,222 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 31,280 reviews
Profile Image for chai ♡.
321 reviews152k followers
August 11, 2022
By the time you finish reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, you will have understood what Ocean Vuong meant when he said, “I wrote a phantom novel”. The phantom is about the past; the phantom straddles multiple worlds, passing and trespassing; the phantom clings to something long gone, inconsolable and beyond reach; the phantom lingers in the periphery, dreaming of a center that might hold; and, ultimately, the phantom remembers. The word, therefore, could not fit more perfectly into the contours of a novel that is fraught with history, cobbled together from truth and fiction, haunted by American violence, and primarily addressed to a spectral audience.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is structurally, formally, and thematically haunted—and haunting. The novel is written in the form of a letter, addressed from a son to his mother who can’t read; a recipient who, like a ghost, is not promised—only longed for. “Dear Ma,” it begins, like an invocation meant to save him, “I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are” (17). The narrator is Little Dog, a nickname given to him by his grandmother because “to love something is to name it after something so worthless it might be left untouched—and alive” (30), and his words are arms that cannot hold his illiterate mother whose education was capped at the age of five after a napalm raid destroyed her schoolhouse in Vietnam. The reader could just imagine her there, hovering at the edge of remembrance: stooped with decades of working in factories and nail salons, wilting her like an unwatered flower—those places “where dreams become the calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones—with or without citizenship—aching, toxic, and underpaid” (86). A mother the tighter he gripped, the more she melted away—like trying to hold on to the reflection of the moon.

The mother is a ghost who remains distant, unreachable, because the medium is English: the language that is most accessible, abundant, and malleable to the son, but which is an impenetrable country to his mother. The act of impossible reception becomes therefore an act of impossible translation. Is English enough, asks the novel, to hold the complexity of this fraught and fragile inquiry between mother and son? And further, if a letter is only made possible by whom it is addressed to, then what is the use for language in the absence of a destination? On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is, in that sense, a very intimate display of an immigrant concern with the English language. In many places in the world, the English language is what makes people eligible—and legible. If you don't have the language, you are not seen. If you are not seen, you are locked outside comprehension. “Your mouth,” to borrow some of Vuong’s words, “is what gets you visibility”. With every morsel of English that grows and blossoms in Little Dog’s mouth, so too does the burden of translation. Little Dog must make his family visible by translating America to them and translating them to America—and because the language is English, the stakes are enormous. The stakes are the perils of erasure, of invisibility, the deep terrible pain of betraying his parents in order to preserve them. “This is the oppressor’s language ”, in Adrienne Rich’s words, and the more of it Little Dog commits to paper, the further he is from his mother; and yet, as Rich also concedes in that same poem, Little Dog needs it to talk to her.

Little Dog's fraught and complex relationship with language seeps into form as well. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is rendered in a brilliantly haphazard collection of vignettes; some several pages long, others only the space of a paragraph or two, often separated by a line, like two shores with no desire to touch but to simply achieve proximity. Even within these vignettes, disjointed memories clamor like bells, each one chiming against the next. There’s no chronology to follow here—Little Dog traces his way through this dizzying skein of tangled memory by a wanderer’s less certain compass. He recounts the past in tangents, detours, and circuits. He veers from the story, recomposes it, reaffirms it, goes back in time, recalls it, calls it back. Like a ghost, Vuong’s form is all restlessness. This circularity, however, is not without purpose. It is redolent of queer and feminist thinking, a breaking with hegemonic narrative structures that favor easy, balanced, and digestible renderings. What Vuong does, and powerfully so, is demonstrate what language can do when it’s unfettered from the strictures and conventions of narrative, and the detours thus become, not symptoms of language failing, but rather a safe passage to a destination. Even if the destination is a dead end, because “to be lost,” in Vuong’s hands, “is not to be wrong, but to be more.”

This push and pull of language, this breaking open of form into meaning, makes On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous so clearly the novel of a poet. But halfway through, the novel also literally disintegrates into poetry. That On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous can contain both prose and poetry inside the skin of a single novel is not just craftmanship, it is also necessity. These moments of collapse expose both the enormity of Little Dog’s trauma and the difficulty of recounting it. They occur when Little Dog is overstrained by too much responsibility, too much fear and uncertainty: Little Dog’s fugitive love affair with a boy whose youth is withering into earth with every swallow of the opioids he’s addicted to. Little Dog’s grandmother—once a teenage bride escaping an arranged marriage, “her body, her purple dress…[keeping] her alive” (35) as a prostitute for American GIs—succumbing more and more to the dark pull of schizophrenia. Little Dog lost between all the contradictions of his mother, her love and her blows, the heart-breaking paradox of traumatized parents subjecting their children to trauma in an effort to spare them from trauma. To live in an American body, the novel seems to say, is to be constantly on the verge of falling apart. And when language falls apart—stretching and tearing with the strain of violence, of trauma, of too many ghosts—it crumbles into poetry. Caressing, fluid, unforgettable poetry. In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong’s restless poetic explorations push the English language to its limits, breaking it apart. The poetry, in that sense, is realized in the aftermath of insupportable prose. When a story is too heavy for the medium supposed to carry it, collapse is inevitable—but collapse is not failure. It's salvation. There’s art in the debris, insists the novel, and a promise to start over. Thus, in breaking into poetry, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous also breaks itself towards completion: a few (poetic) pages later, the novel picks itself up again, and continues in prose. The fractures are not only survivable, they’re also a stepping-stone towards wholeness.

In short, what Vuong does in this novel with language and form, how he then transmutes that into thematic valence, is nothing short of extraordinary. I'm simply, endlessly in awe.
Profile Image for Emily May.
1,943 reviews291k followers
June 25, 2019
“All freedom is relative—you know too well—and sometimes it’s no freedom at all, but simply the cage widening far away from you, the bars abstracted with distance but still there, as when they “free” wild animals into nature preserves only to contain them yet again by larger borders. But I took it anyway, that widening.”

4 1/2 stars. Stunning.

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is quite a book. It is not surprising that the author is a poet, as this reads almost like a poetry collection - prose poems, each capturing a moment, a memory, a feeling, or an idea so beautifully. It doesn't follow a regular narrative structure, but is instead a series of snippets or moments. The style won't be for everyone, but for those who love the raw punches of poetry, it is a fantastic book.

I found it difficult to believe this was fiction. There is something about Little Dog's story, a certain raw honesty and earnestness, that seems to come from a place of truth. Maybe because much of it does. The author draws on recent and historical events, stories of well-known figures, artists and tragedies to weave his fictional story with every inch of our reality.

The book is a letter from Little Dog to his illiterate mother. He talks frankly about race, gender, sexuality, masculinity, grief and language, without allowing the book to be overwhelmed by the heavy subject matter. The last one - language - is a major theme, and the author explores the importance of language on both a micro and macro level - the choice of individual words and phrases, and the power (or lack of) bestowed upon an individual by having access to language and literacy.

For such a tiny novel, it is huge in its scope. From the Vietnam War to Barthes to Tiger Woods to 50 Cent to Little Dog's first romance with a white boy, it's somehow both a philosophical book about humanity and language, and a deeply personal bildungsroman.

It is impossible to categorize, but it is undeniably both brief and gorgeous.

Blog | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Youtube
Profile Image for But_i_thought_.
174 reviews1,447 followers
August 1, 2019
So you go to a high-end restaurant with an elaborate tasting menu. You are served dishes with fancy names that involve sublimated beetroot gel and deconstructed potato foam, and though the experience is unique and artisanal, you go home feeling... unsated. My experience with this novel in a nutshell.

At first glance, Vuong’s book has all the ingredients of a winning novel — lyrical writing, fascinating themes, a topical premise. Taking the form of a long, confessional letter from a young Vietnamese immigrant to his illiterate mother, the novel explores race, otherness and queer identity. What’s not to love? Sadly, the book ultimately felt hollow and unsatisfying due to its performative quality. “On Earth” reads like the product of a writer modeling his work on the idea of the “serious literary novel”, having reverse-engineered a novel out of a checklist of common criteria. One can almost hear the author plotting in the background (“If I intersplice this historical chapter with scenes of animal torture, it will be so literary”). The result feels forced and highly manufactured, full of writing designed to distance and impress.

Even the lyrical writing, which at first appears the novel’s strongest suit, turns out to be an emperor without clothes. The text is continually yearning, reaching, grasping — trying to extract profundity out of moments without actually saying much. A sampler:

“A page, turning, is a wing lifted with no twin, and therefore no flight. And yet we are moved.”

Do I sound harsh? I hope not. If I could speak to Vuong directly, I would say this:

You do not have to fold your story into a mould that you think will appeal to a ‘literary elite’. Drop the pretension. Shed the performance, and we may find — underneath all those layers — a unique and valuable testament.

Mood: Affected
Rating: 5.5/10

Also on Instagram.
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 117 books156k followers
July 16, 2019
Ocean is a brilliant writer and I am a fan of his work. I even published him once in PANK! It has been thrilling to watch him soar. The prose in this novel is sublime. The way he writes is just… exquisite. He writes the body so well. He writes about the complicated relationship between a mother and son with real tenderness, with compelling honesty. He writes sex better than almost anyone out there. There are so many lines that gutted me or exhilarated me or stunned me. I wanted to sit with each line and just feel it as deeply as I could. The intimacy of the novel as a letter between a son and mother was poignant. That said, I just didn’t fall in love with this book. The prose was, perhaps, too beautiful, too resonant, without enough story behind it. That is a personal preference, the desire for story. As I got deeper into the novel, I kept wanting a clearer sense of where the story was going, I wanted to feel like there was more substance to hold all that style. I do still recommend this novel because I've never read anything like it.
Profile Image for ELLIAS (elliasreads).
477 reviews37.7k followers
March 23, 2021
You want to read a book where it'll break your soul, heart, and mind but remake and rebuild them all at the same time????!!!!1!1!

This book fucking wrecked me (no i didn't cry because everything inside me was dead anyways) BUT when I say everything— e v e r y t h i n g— I felt reading this book: it all transcends and escalates into something that is literally close to basic divination.

Basically this book gave me superpowers I didn't know I had.

If you want that feeling, that punch of serotonin and straight up blessings while doing hot boy/girl shit vibes? READ THIS GLORIOUS MAGNIFICENT MASTERPIECE!!!

If you want to hear more about how much I talked about my favorite child, check out this video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=67T8G...

Twitter | Bookstagram | Youtube |
Profile Image for Celeste Ng.
Author 14 books86.3k followers
February 1, 2019
ON EARTH WE'RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS will be described--rightly--as luminous, shattering, urgent, necessary. But the word I keep circling back to is raw: that's how powerful the emotions here are, and how you'll feel after reading it--scoured down to bone. With a poet's precision, Ocean Vuong examines whether putting words to one's experience can bridge wounds that span generations, and whether it's ever possible to be truly heard by those we love most.
Profile Image for emma.
1,821 reviews45.4k followers
August 30, 2022
Sometimes, a book just hits you.

(Unsurprisingly, based on that first sentence, this is one of my favorites of the year. Find the full list: https://emmareadstoomuch.wordpress.co...)

I read 200+ books a year. This month, I’ve read almost a book a day. When I’m reading that much, it can just be because the stars aligned and gave me an insane amount of free time and I chose to spend it all on Bettering Myself Through Literature, but more often, it’s because I’m trying to escape from my snoozefest daily life and my annoying brain.

Currently, it’s the latter.

When I read that much, it can put the stories at a distance. Or really I want to immerse myself so much that I remove myself from the equation altogether and it’s all story, no impact on me.

But sometimes you get a good book at the perfect time and it cuts all that away, whether you want it to or not.

(I did not.)

This book is so, well, gorgeous. The writing and the story, the characters, the setting - none of it gives you a moment’s mercy. It’s unrelenting in its pain and its reality and its loveliness. I kept thinking this was a memoir, because fiction that feels like this is so rare, an incredible feat.

For the last 25% of this book, I kept thinking it had to be over at the next page, or the next - every sentence felt like another paper cut, every paragraph break a scrape, chapter endings f*cking road rash. It was unbearable. I had tears in my eyes through a third of it and I pride myself on being the coolest and least emotional person alive.

Jeez louise.

Bottom line: A book so good it makes me talk like an elderly person.


oh, worth the wait.

review to come / 5 stars easily, obviously, painfully

currently-reading updates

i saw this for the first time in a bookstore two years ago and have wanted to read it ever since.

better late than never?


taking lily's idea and reading only books by asian authors this month!

book 1: the incendiaries
book 2: last night at the telegraph club
book 3: dear girls
book 4: sigh, gone
book 5: frankly in love
book 6: emergency contact
book 7: your house will pay
book 8: convenience store woman
book 9: on earth we're briefly gorgeous
Profile Image for Neil.
1,007 reviews624 followers
July 7, 2019
Recently, when I have opened my Goodreads web page, it has seemed to be full of people giving a lot of stars to this book and singing its praises in glowing reviews.

I opened the book with high hopes.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous uses a fragmented narrative to tell, or perhaps explore is a better word, the life of Little Dog, a son born to Vietnamese immigrants into the USA. The reader gradually pieces together the story of Little Dog’s mother (Rose) and grandmother (Lan) along with Little Dog’s own experiences growing up, especially his teenage love affair with Trevor.

Ocean Vuong is an award-winning poet and this is very evident in this, his first novel. Many of the narrative fragments read like poetry and it feels as though every word has been agonised over before being committed to paper.

I should have loved this book. I have said time and time again that I look for atmosphere above plot in a book and Vuong’s fragmentary, poetic style certainly works through atmosphere and imagery rather than story-telling. It is the reader’s job to compile the story.

But, somehow, I just could not engage with the book at all. I think it was partly the effort that has clearly gone into the writing. Each word has been polished to become so perfect that the overall effect seems to hide the content from the reader (well, from this reader) rather than draw them in. For me, reading this felt like trying to penetrate a shell that would not yield to reveal its contents. That shell is undoubtedly beautiful, but I feel I am only admiring the exterior, not the heart, which, for a book so personal and intense seems self-defeating. Part of the problem I had is that the book is framed as a letter from the narrator to his mother. But it is made clear early on that the mother is illiterate, so we know from the outset that this is just a framing device to allow the author to give voice to his emotions. We know he is writing into a void, and so, it seems does he. I also have to acknowledge (trigger warning coming) that there is a scene fairly early on in the book that features gruesome animal cruelty which really upset me and made me hesitant to pick the book up again for a while and then very nervous as I was reading in case something similar should happen again. That’s a personal reaction as I am not good at dealing with animal cruelty in a book, but this is about my experience of the book so it has to include my personal view.

My thanks to Random House UK for making a copy of this novel available to me via NetGalley. I’m sorry I did not appreciate it more because I thought it was going to be a top read of 2019 for me and I ended up disappointed. I would give the book 3 stars but the animal cruelty really got under my skin and detrimentally affected my experience of the book.
Profile Image for Cindy.
407 reviews111k followers
June 13, 2022
Vuong is no doubt a skilled writer. His prose is always gorgeous and lovely. It’s the type of writing that I normally go for; this book just didn’t hit strongly enough for me to enjoy beyond the technical skill. I’m left wishing for more of a focused narrative and less of abstract vignettes. I question if it should have been a poetry collection rather than a novel.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,024 reviews48.3k followers
May 28, 2019
May 31 marks the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth, and the best present we could possibly receive is Ocean Vuong’s debut novel, “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.” The connection between the Good Gray Poet and this young Vietnamese immigrant may seem tenuous, but with his radical approach to form and his daring mix of personal reflection, historical recollection and sexual exploration, Vuong is surely a literary descendant of the author of “Leaves of Grass.” Emerging from the most marginalized circumstances, he has produced a lyrical work of self-discovery that’s shockingly intimate and insistently universal.

The fact that we can hear Vuong’s voice today in America stems from a function of tragedy and serendipity. As Vuong explains in his 2016 poetry collection, “Night Sky With Exit Wounds,” his grandfather was a U.S. soldier who found a farm girl in Vietnam. “Thus my mother exists,” he writes. “Thus I exist. Thus no bombs = no family = no me.”

That willingness to solve the equation of his own existence, no matter what its components, is a. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,424 reviews8,304 followers
July 21, 2019
I am out here stanning the success of Ocean Vuong’s debut novel! As a fellow queer Vietnamese American, it feels so amazing to see someone with my same ethnic and queer identities breaking through in the literary world – and so sad that we have to fight so hard for our voices to be heard. This book took me on a scattershot, beautiful emotional journey. It felt less like reading a novel and more like reading tender, poignant passages about several connected moments: our narrator Little Dog accidentally triggering his immigrant mother by pretending to be an explosion, Little Dog listening to his grandmother’s stories of war and survival as she descends into mental decay, Little Dog reflecting on his gayness and the violence experienced by gay people both in Vietnam and in the United States. At several points I had little clue what was happening chronologically and where we were exactly in Little Dog’s life, and I didn’t feel too bothered by that lack of structure because of the visceral beauty of Vuong’s writing, like the moments he wrote about Little Dog translating English for his mother and grandmother and the weight that comes with that, how he wrote about so many specific moments related to immigration and trauma and resilience. I love even this brief passage that gives a small glimpse into the complexity of family and immigrant life, with Little Dog writing to his mother:

I remember walking with you to the grocery store, my father’s wages in your hands. How, by then, he had beaten you only twice – which meant there was still hope it would be the last. I remember armfuls of Wonder Bread and jars of mayo, how you thought mayo was butter, how in Saigon, butter and white bread were only eaten inside mansions guarded by butlers and steel gates. I remember everyone smiling back at the apartment, mayonnaise sandwiches raised to crack lips. I remember thinking we lived in a sort of mansion.

I remember thinking this was the American Dream as snow crackled against the window and night came, and we lay down to sleep, side by side, limbs tangled as the sirens wailed through the streets, our bellies full of bread and ‘butter.’”

How could you not feel something with that level of quality detailed prose?

I give this four stars instead of five mostly because I feel like the romance weighed this book down. I just didn’t really feel like Little Dog’s relationship with Trevor contributed much to the book? Like, I appreciate the exploration of queerness in the context of being Asian American and within the context of an immigrant family. I also liked how Vuong wrote gay sex in a way that felt realistic in its messiness instead of doing what a lot of people – especially heterosexual women who write gay sex – do by glossing over its complexities and portraying it as seamlessly hot. But I didn’t really get much from Trevor and Little Dog together aside Little Dog dating a white boy with toxic masculinity issues. I wish there had been more interrogation of the power dynamics involved with dating a white person or even being intimate in any way with a white person when you have a marginalized racial/ethnic identity. Or I wish there had been more space to see Little Dog reclaim his power apart from his relationship with Trevor. My sense is that if the space devoted to Trevor had been both streamlined and redirected toward giving more structure to Little Dog’s relationship with his mother and grandmother, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous would’ve been even more phenomenal.

A great read I would recommend to fans of poetry, poignant and emotional narratives, and my fellow queer and Vietnamese and/or Asian American readers. Just check out this lovely line and then check out the book if you’re so inclined:

Let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence – but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.
Profile Image for Ruby Granger.
Author 2 books44.9k followers
January 26, 2021
I read this for the Ruby Reads book club in January and it is one of the most lyrical narratives I have ever happened across. Vuong presents an atemporal account of life as Vietnamese immigrant in America. Vuong's imagery is painstakingly accurate and incredibly clever. He also captures the child's voice really well (the observations we make as children, but miss as adults). At once beautiful and heartbreaking, this novel is a masterpiece.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,290 reviews120k followers
April 3, 2022
I am thinking of beauty again, how some things are hunted because we have deemed them beautiful. If, relative to the history of our planet, an individual life is so short, a blink of an eye, as they say, then to be gorgeous, even from the day you’re born to the day you die, is to be gorgeous only briefly…sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.

“Everything good is somewhere else, baby. I’m telling you.”
Take one beam of light. Direct it through a prism. It will separate into its component colors. Reading Ocean Vuong is a bit like this. He takes words, images, and concepts, beams them through his prismatic, gravitic artistry, and the result is a spreading rainbow, bending in several directions. It is a bit of a trip reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Go ahead, take the Vuong acid. This is a trip worth taking.

Ocean Vuong - image from The Guardian - credit Adrian Pope

On Earth… is not all straightforward story-telling, although there is plenty of that in here. It is a mix of elements.

The parts. The form. Little Dog is writing an extended letter to his mother, Rose, telling her of his experiences, a letter she will not, cannot ever read. He had tried teaching her to read English, but she gave up in short order, claiming that she had gotten that far being able to see, so did not really need it. Uncomfortable, too, with the dis-order of a child teaching a parent. The story of helping at the nail salon where she worked, where the workers inhale culture as well as toxic chemicals.
In the nail salon, sorry is a tool one used to pander until the word itself becomes currency. It no longer merely apologizes, but insists, reminds: I'm here, right here, beneath you. It is the lowering of oneself so that the client feels right, superior, and charitable. In the nail salon, one’s definition of sorry is deranged into a new work entirely, one that’s charged and reused as both power and defacement at once. Being sorry pays, being sorry even, or especially, when one has no fault, is worth every self-deprecating syllable the mouth allows. Because the mouth must eat.
The History. Family. Little Dog tells of his grandmother, Lan, in Viet Nam, marrying a GI, bearing him a child, Little Dog’s mother. Being left behind when the USA fled. His history with his grandmother, their closeness, how she protected him as much as she could. When he was tasked with plucking the white hairs from her head, she would tell him stories.
As I plucked, the blank walls around us did not so much fill with fantastical landscapes as open to them, the plaster disintegrating to reveal the past behind it. Scenes from the war, mythologies of manlike monkeys, of ancient ghost catchers from the hills of Da Lat who were paid in jugs of rice wine, who traveled through villages with packs of wild dogs and spells written on palm leaves to dispel evil spirits.
The story of his mother, growing up in Viet Nam, ostracized for being too white, her PTSD as an adult, and how that manifested as physical abuse of her son.
Sometimes you are erased before you are given the choice of stating who you are.
The story of Little Dog’s contending with the dual challenges of being a yellow boy in a white place, (Hartford, Connecticut), in the poorer parts, and a gay one, to boot. Coming of age as a gay male teenager, first experiencing sex and a lasting relationship, until well, you’ll see.

Ocean Vuong aged two with his mother and aunt at Philippines refugee camp - image from 2017 Guardian interview

The story of his relationship with his American grandfather, and a secret in that bond.

He writes about Tiger Woods, offering some history of how he came by his name, and wonders why Woods is only very rarely referred to as half-Asian.

There is much consideration of language. In an interview with PBS, Vuong talked about how in Vietnamese culture, farm workers would sing as they worked, merging the action of their bodies with the rhythms of the songs and poems. Other elements contribute to his perspective. Vuong talks about his struggles in school.
Reading was particularly hard, and he suspects that dyslexia runs in his family, though he says now: “I think perhaps the disability helped me a bit, because I write very slowly and see words as objects. I’m always trying to look for words inside words. It’s so beautiful to me that the word laughter is inside slaughter.” - from The Rumpus
He writes of the body as a form of language.
I am writing you from inside a body that used to be yours. Which is to say, I am writing as a son. If we are lucky, the end of the sentence is where we might begin. If we are lucky, something is passed on, another alphabet written in the blood, sinew, and neuron…
It’s in these moments, next to you, that I envy words for doing what we can never do—how they can tell all of themselves simply by standing still, simply by being.
Imagine I could lie down beside you and my whole body, every cell, radiates a clear, singular meaning, not so much a writer as a word pressed down beside you.
The sadness of loss permeates. Little Dog has his own losses to grieve, his mother and grandmother far more. But there is recognition, also, that the trials of the past have allowed for some of the good things of the present. This is not a pity party.

Gruesomeness, having to do with macaques, is very far from gorgeous, but is fleeting, and can be seen as an image of the darkest sort of colonialism. There is also LOL humor in the occasional mismatch of cultures.

Vuong can start off a chapter writing about a table, for example, and turn that into a labyrinth, that winds, bends and turns, and somehow winds up back at the table. Very Somebody spoke and I went into a dream.

This is one of the more quotable books you will read. A few:
Freedom, I am told, is nothing but the distance between the hunter and the prey.
the past never a fixed and dormant landscape but one that is re-seen. Whether we want to or not, we are traveling in a spiral, we are creating something new from what is gone.
I want to insist that our being alive is beautiful enough to be worthy of replication. And so what? So what if all I ever made of my life was more of it?
You get the idea. And plenty more where those came from.

While this is a small book in size, it is neither a slight, nor an easy read. You do not have to be a poet, or a fan of poetry to appreciate the wonderfulness of this book, but it wouldn’t hurt. The stories Ocean Vuong tells are clear and very accessible, but the linguistic gymnastics can leave you needing to uncross your eyes, more than once. But gymnastics are stimulating too, and might loosen up some latent cranial muscles. We may or may not be gorgeous briefly, or at all, but this book is a work of surpassing beauty, and will remain so forever.

Review first posted – December 13, 2019

Publication dates
==========June 4, 2019 - hardcover
==========June 1, 2021 - Trade paperback

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Tumblr and Instagram pages

Vuong is an award-winning poet. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is his first novel.

-----The Paris Review – June 5, 2019 - Survival as a Creative Force: An Interview with Ocean Vuong - by Spencer Quong
-----The Guardian – June 9, 2019 - Ocean Vuong: ‘As a child I would ask: What’s napalm?’- by Emma Brockes
-----The Creative Independent – May 16, 2017 - Ocean Vuong on being generous in your work
-----LA Review of Books – Article is from June 2019, but the interview was done in 2017 - Failing Better: A Conversation with Ocean Vuong - by Viet Thanh Nguyen
-----The Guardian – October 3, 2017 - War baby: the amazing story of Ocean Vuong, former refugee and prize-winning poet - by Claire Armistead

Items of Interest
-----Excerpt – The New Yorker published this piece from Vuong on May 13, 2017. It is essentially an excerpt from the book. A Letter to My Mother That She Will Never Read
-----The Rumpus – a 2014 piece by Vuong - The Weight of Our Living: On Hope, Fire Escapes, and Visible Desperation
-----The Guardian - April 2, 2022 - Ocean Vuong: ‘I was addicted to everything you could crush into a white powder’ by Lisa Allardice - on his upcoming book, but with relevant intel on the author independent to that
18 reviews21 followers
June 4, 2019
I gave Vuong’s full-length poetry debut 1 star, which made a lot of people upset in the same way as when you tell a high school student that their favorite band sucks. Now I wish I had given it 2 stars, because this book is worse. Worse still is what Vuong represents: the literary establishment unchanged despite our being told otherwise. No, it has not opened itself to new voices; yes, it is still as capital-driven as ever. The only new, marginalized voices it chooses are those that will sell. Vuong sells—he writes like Rupi Kaur doing an MFA—with a salable backstory.

A recent New Yorker “review” of the book illustrates what I mean. The majority of the article is a summation of the book’s plot. There are the usual words written about Vuong’s personal story that change each retelling (he learned to read when he was 16, he learned to read when he was 14, he never learned to read but writes by telepathy, etc.). Vuong, the spoiled only-child of the literary world, is praised for the most basic of thoughts, a round of applause every time he poops. We are told he is great at wordplay, but then are dished this: “It’s not fair that the word laughter is trapped inside slaughter” as an example—a joke so old that I’ve literally seen similar sentiments printed on t-shirts (seriously, Google “laughter spell slaughter” and you get mugs, hats, and other items for sale). But there are no better examples to choose from in the book. I searched.

Am I being harsh? How about: to pay lip service to an establishment figure is to prop up the establishment. I am saddened to think of all the POC and queer (and yes, white and straight) young writers whose voices I will not hear because those voices are their own and in being their own are more difficult and therefore less marketable, while being told—with Vuong trotted out as an example—that the literary world is seeking those voices. Strangely enough, for a book that parallels its author’s life closely and seems so personal, I hardly hear Vuong at all. What I hear instead is a writer given too much praise too young and who will now always write with that imp on his shoulder, which may be why the prose aims for freshness but, like a pillow whose two sides have already been slept on, now feels lukewarm and molded to someone else’s head (and lumpy, there is nothing smooth about his sentences; they do not come naturally). He writes like he thinks a great writer should write without being a great writer himself: each line is so overthought, so straining to be something great, trying so hard to be profound:

“You once told me that the human eye is god’s loneliest creation. How so much of the world passes through the pupil and still it holds nothing. The eye, alone in its socket, doesn’t even known there’s another one, just like it, an inch away, just as hungry, as empty.”

This is prose so purple it is supra-spectral. After a few pages you want to stop and read something less pretentious. I did and I did.
Profile Image for Diane Barnes.
1,228 reviews451 followers
June 7, 2019
No review. Just a list of adjectives.


The author didn't write this book; he opened his heart and just let it bleed all over the pages. Reading it cracked mine open and turned me inside out.

Just a sample: "Did you know people get rich off of sadness? I want to meet the millionaire of American sadness. I want to look him in the eye, shake his hand, and say, "Its been an honor to serve my country".
Profile Image for Nilufer Ozmekik.
2,126 reviews39.2k followers
March 23, 2022
This is a literary feast, poetic, lyrical, heart wrenching, amazing story! My emotions are everywhere and I am so shaken, stunned, speechless and never thought this book could get affected me deeply. I think I should a few steps to get closer to the wall and hit my head to punish myself again and again when I routinely do for waiting too long to start a beautiful book!

This is a poignant, unique, heart capturing, meaningful letter of Vietnam immigrant to his mother who doesn’t know how to read which is including too many unspoken words between them. This is a story about a boy who tries to discover his true self in a foreign country, trying too hard to find a proper fitting, a real place for himself. It’s about his first love, drug addiction, his miscommunication with his own mother and grandmother, his suffers from bullies and his mother’s abuses. It also brings out the pasts of those two women and connects with the boy’s life story.

It’s not a hearts and flowers kind of soft, sweet reading or some heartwarming and emotional biography, this is so realistic, so harsh, including explicit and intense sex scenes and heavily depressing stuff so even though it is a lyrical, beautifully written and unputdownable journey, this book is not everyone’s cup of tea. If you want to start reading this you gotta prefer something stronger ( straight bourbon or at least dark roast-sugarless and creamless venti coffee)

Some parts of the book were quiet challenging for me but at the end I got so much impressed by the raw and incredible talent of the author and how he creates magic by only touching the words. So I’m cutting one of my stars for the compelling parts and giving remarkable, heart wrenching, challenging four stars!

It’s one of the different, adventurous, exhausting but also inventive reads of mine in this year.
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,275 reviews2,215 followers
April 24, 2019
This is such a beautiful book title and it was the title that drew me to read the description and request a copy of it. Not only is the title beautiful, but much of the writing here is as well. It’s described as literary fiction, but a brief look at Ocean Vuong’s bio after I read this book made the biographical nature of the story striking. This letter from a young Vietnamese immigrant to his mother who doesn’t know how to read is raw, impactful, achingly sad, painful to read. It is filled with flashbacks to his childhood when he is bullied at school, physically abused by his mother, protected by his grandmother. It is filled with stories and memories of his mother and grandmother’s past fleeing Vietnam as their pasts become part of his story.

It is about a love between a mother and son. It is a story of a young boy trying to find his place in this country. It’s an intimate portrait of his first relationship as he falls in love with another boy. (A warning to those who might be bothered by explicit sex scenes. You’ll find them here.) The vivid descriptions of the times he spent in the nail salon where his mother worked were eye opening. There’s drug addiction. There are also poignant moments reflecting his love of his mother and grandmother. The stream of consciousness felt a bit disjointed in last part feeling more like random thoughts , and it lacked the cohesiveness of the earlier part for me., thus 4 instead of 5 stars. This book is not for everyone, but it’s worth reading for the beautiful language and amazing portrait of the Vietnamese immigrant experience, for the intimate piece of his heart and soul that this writer shares .

I received an advanced copy of this book from Penguin Press through Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Giorgia Reads.
945 reviews1,839 followers
July 16, 2021
4.5 Stars

This is one of those books that reminds me why I read.

Sure, I read for pleasure and to keep at bay anxieties and worries that otherwise occupy my mind (that’s what my romance/chick-lit stacks are for) but my true love for the written word came from discovering the beauty of depth and emotion that’s hidden within the lyrical prose of select writers.

To say that the writing in this book is gorgeous would be an understatement. There is one measure I use to determine if I find a particular writer/book worth of high praise and that’s if it makes me jealous. And boy am I jealous of Vuong’s ability to write so rawly that it almost bruises you.

Of the top of my head, I have a few favorites when it comes Today I’ve just added Ocean Vuong to the list.

I’ve forgotten how much I love to stare at a phrase and reread it in my head until it involuntarily imprints itself in my memory . I tend to read a lot of “feel good, easy to digest” books with simple writing, for the obvious fact that I won’t dwell on them, I won’t torture myself with existential questions and most importantly I can file them away as soon as I’m done. There will be no extra burden on my mind, I won’t obsess for days questioning life, meaning, history, etc.

But sometimes I want to invite that kind of reaction, I want to feel, I wanna be awed and lured in by gorgeous words that cut deep and then I wanna be healed of their bruising force, by extending my own understanding and contemplation to their meaning and purpose.
I did all that with this book. And I loved every second of it.

I realise this sounds more like a diary entry than a review but I feel like I don’t need to talk about plot, characters, or any of the usual suspects because this book inspires so much more than a clinical analysis. So pick it up and enjoy it, don’t give it that much thought.
Profile Image for s.penkevich.
775 reviews5,355 followers
August 10, 2022
Need a good cry? Do I have the book for you!

Ocean Vuong will completely destroy you emotionally and then put you back together as a new person. Slaps some line breaks into this prose and it’s pure poetry. An absolute devastating banger of a novel. Bring tissues.
Profile Image for Vada.
10 reviews11 followers
June 20, 2022
This is the most pretentious book I have ever read! It made me realise how much I dislike books with tedious and unnecessary descriptions that don't contribute to the story. It's like an undergrad wrote an essay, went over the first draft and tried to re-write every single sentence in the attempt to sound as profound as possible.

I have a list of examples:

1. "Trevor lit a cigarette....then passed the ruby bead toward my fingers." - What is the purpose of calling it a ruby bead?? Doesn't add anything to the story. Tedious.

2. "He likes sunflowers because they grow higher than humans" (or something like that) - Why say 'higher' when he obviously means 'taller'?? This just seems like a weird attempt to make the writing edgier.

3. The term "a single-use life". I imagine an undergrad coming up with this term and feeling very pleased with himself for doing so. And just as I suspected, it was used 3 more times in the same chapter. Maybe in the unfortunate event that the reader missed this stroke of genius the first time.

4. "The day was a purple day - neither good nor bad..."

5. "I know. It's not fair that the word laughter is trapped inside slaughter." - WHAT. This should be the top post of all time on r/im14andthisisdeep

6. "His cock, touched at the tip with the dark inside me..." - You know there's a problem when someone is trying to romanticise poop.

7. Oh, and let's not forget the part where he whispered to a JOLLY RANCHER. "Tell me what you know."

This list goes on. I had to force myself to finish it but I was not happy about it at all. No idea why this book is so well received and raved about. I feel like I've been tricked into reading it. Plus, too many paragraphs end with really short sentences that are presumably meant to sound profound.

They end. Just like this.
Profile Image for jessica.
2,506 reviews30.9k followers
August 15, 2019
'all this time i told myself we were born from war, but I was wrong. we were born from beauty. let no one mistake us for the fruit of violence - but that violence, having passed through the fruit, failed to spoil it.'

wow. i am stunned. in a debut novel where prose so elegantly meets verse, a work of beauty is created and the world is a better place because of it.

i randomly came across this video (probably one of the most genuine interviews i have ever seen) and i immediately fell in love with the delicate, but intentional, way ocean vuong creates words. the emotive gentleness with which he speaks is exactly how he writes and is a tremendous asset to his first novel.

i will say that i found myself drawn to the more straightforward sections of story, the parts that explore the main characters family history, trauma, and identity. but the introspective parts that are more freeform and challenge the traditional narrative of a novel are worthwhile as well, even if i wasnt as invested in them.

the incredible thoughtfulness and grace that ocean vuong uses to explore themes of masculinity, language, love, coming of age, and family helped to tell a hauntingly personal story; one that is undeniably gorgeous.

4.5 stars
Profile Image for Alok Vaid-Menon.
Author 9 books18k followers
August 11, 2019
This is one of the best books I have ever read. Reading it felt like a lesson on how to write, make art, and make beauty. It's not a conventional "novel," in that the narrative/plot isn't what drives the work, it's driven thematically and linguistically. Linearity disintegrates, like form, genre, culture. I had to read it in one sitting, I couldn't get away from it. The amount of wisdom, intention, and craft it takes to compose something like this moves me so much. Articulation is a magic that Ocean channels effortlessly. He is one of my favorite writers because he gives language to the intangible. Each depiction of a scene felt more real than reality itself. That's because things become more real in his figuration. Every scene so poignant, precise, and well executed. It's the kind of read you could do over and over again, and still find something new every time. Poetry in its most urgent and compelling form, and poetry so needed for the world today. This meditation on diaspora, love, sex, and kinship will not disappoint!
Profile Image for Tory.
1,225 reviews28 followers
January 20, 2019
I'm sorry, Ocean. I'm not your target audience. Stream-of-consciousness makes me itchy and confused; I thrive on plots and my capacity for poetry is finite. There was a sharp, biting, anxious love story here that entranced me -- made my heart and bones ache -- but it was buried in so many layers of ramblings and literary gibberish and phrases that *seemed* super deep and meaningful until you read them again and they're nonsense: "They say nothing lasts forever but I'm writing you in the voice of an endangered species."
"Is that what art is? To be touched thinking what we feel is ours when, in the end, it was someone else, in longing, who finds us?"

Like, WHAT?

So yeah, if you're like me, give this one a pass. I KNOW others will love this and it's their right to, absolutely, but to me, this book was only briefly gorgeous and mostly tedious.
Profile Image for Lisa of Troy.
389 reviews3,141 followers
November 21, 2022
What a strange letter to write to your mum……

I wish that I never read this book because it has the most graphic depiction of animal cruelty, beyond my imagination.

Alright that aside…..

For On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, I practiced a technique called immersion reading. This where you listen to the audiobook while following along in the copy of the text.

This is one of the rare cases where I highly recommend the audiobook over the text. Ocean Vuong narrates the book. In a world of rush, rush, rush, Vuong’s words are the opposite: deliberate, calculated, taking their time. His words are hypnotic, lyrical.

This is performance art, and it is well done.

However, I did enjoy Ocean Vuong’s Time Is a Mother more. Not only did it not include such animal cruelty, it is shorter than On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. The issue is that On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is not plot driven. It follows certain sections of the lives on his grandmother, his mother, and himself (with some miscellaneous other tidbits thrown in). We aren’t necessarily leading up to a certain point. Although I enjoyed the performance art, it got old after a while.

2023 Reading Schedule
Jan Alice in Wonderland
Feb Notes from a Small Island
Mar Cloud Atlas
Apr On the Road
May The Color Purple
Jun Bleak House
Jul Bridget Jones’s Diary
Aug Anna Karenina
Sep The Secret History
Oct Brave New World
Nov A Confederacy of Dunces
Dec The Count of Monte Cristo

Connect With Me!
Blog Twitter BookTube Facebook Insta
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,915 reviews35.3k followers
September 2, 2019
Fearless... delicate....and haunting.

The beautiful language escalates rapidly and tenderly.

For me...I felt the silence between the words Ocean Vuong wrote and those he didn’t.

Very powerful and self-reflective.

Profile Image for mina reads™️.
520 reviews6,562 followers
August 18, 2022
“I’m not telling you a story so much as a shipwreck —the pieces floating, finally legible”
Profile Image for elle.
198 reviews5,443 followers
July 26, 2022
“is that what art is? to be touched thinking what we feel is ours when, in the end, it was someone else, in longing, who finds us?”
Profile Image for anna (½ of readsrainbow).
569 reviews1,760 followers
December 31, 2021
rep: Vietnamese-American gay mc, Vietnamese, Latinx & Black characters, gay characters, character with PTSD, character with schizophrenia
tw: on page death, child abuse, drug addiction, overdoses, war descriptions, homophobia, animal violence, past domestic abuse

ARC provided by the publisher.

Ocean Vuong is first & foremost a poet and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is his literary debut (he also has a poem by the same title). It’s not a novel novel, though, not in this very Western sense we’re all used to. There are no prominent arcs or villains, or any ascending tension. It’s described as a letter from a son to his mother & that’s how it reads, but you could also call it a memoir and not be too far off the mark.

The book is divided intro three sections, none of them with titles, apart from simple Roman numbers. But their themes are obvious nonetheless (being an immigrant in the US, being gay, dying) and they're overflowing with emotions. You can’t really forget that Vuong is a poet, with how beautifully crafted this novel is. He doesn’t often name things, instead lets himself be vague with metaphors & trusts the reader will understand what he’s getting at anyway. The whole experience is a lot like reading a poem, but this isn’t just a novel in verse & it’s not just a letter, either. It blurs the lines and it does it without you even noticing.

Just like everything Vuong published so far, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is very raw, visceral even and vicious at times. But all the feelings (pain) it evokes ring true. That’s the real strength of Vuong’s novel: the honesty evident not only in the emotions it brings to life, but in the life itself that it describes; all the ups-and-downs, all the ugly details, all the not-poetry-like details. There’s no shying away from the mundanity of life here, from parts the fairy tales (and porn) omit.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 31,280 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.