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Things We Lost to the Water

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When Huong arrives in New Orleans with her two young sons, she is jobless, homeless, and worried about her husband, Cong, who remains in Vietnam. As she and her boys begin to settle in to life in America, she continues to send letters and tapes back to Cong, hopeful that they will be reunited and her children will grow up with a father.

But with time, Huong realizes she will never see her husband again. While she copes with this loss, her sons, Tuan and Binh grow up in their absent father's shadow, haunted by a man and a country trapped in their memory and imagination. As they push forward, the three adapt to life in America in different ways: Huong takes up with a Vietnamese car salesman who is also new in town; Tuan tries to connect with his heritage by joining a local Vietnamese gang; and Binh, now going by Ben, embraces his adopted homeland and his burgeoning sexuality. Their search for identity--as individuals and as a family--threatens to tear them apart. But then disaster strikes the city they now call home, and they must find a new way to come together and honor the ties that bind them.

A stunning debut novel about an immigrant Vietnamese family who settles in New Orleans and struggles to remain connected to one another as their lives are inextricably reshaped.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published May 4, 2021

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About the author

Eric Nguyen

2 books77 followers
ERIC NGUYEN earned an MFA in Creative Writing from McNeese State University in Louisiana. He has been awarded fellowships from Lambda Literary, Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA), and the Tin House Writers Workshop. He is the editor in chief of diaCRITICS.org. He lives in Washington, DC. Things We Lost to the Water is his first novel.

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5 stars
1,885 (19%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,232 reviews
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 118 books157k followers
February 22, 2021
This novel follows a Vietnamese family that flees to the United States in 1979 over the next 26 years. I was captivated. The writing is absolutely gorgeous. The structure is such that we never get to spend enough time with Huong, Tuan, and Binh/Ben. I would have loved this book to be twice as long so as to give more character depth and development. But the voice is strong and this is a powerful novel. I appreciated the epic quality of the narrative I loved seeing how the family changed. The ending is rushed. Well worth a read. Really enjoyed this novel.
Profile Image for jessica.
2,534 reviews32.5k followers
July 26, 2021
with poetic prose reminiscent of ‘on earth were briefly gorgeous’ and a realness and honesty of the immigrant experience similar to ‘the leavers,’ this is an impressive debut.

i enjoyed how family is the heart of this novel. while huong, tuan, and binh each go through their own trials and journeys once in america, i found it really special how their bonds with each other were what they had to work on the most and how they never gave up on each other, even though all the ups and downs.

however, the short length of the book and the fact that the story spans over 30 years makes is difficult for there to be thorough character development. i feel like i only saw the surface of each character by reading their POV chapters, but was able to glimpse some depth that was there. i just wish there was more page time dedicated exploring that.

but overall, a quick and moving story about a first-generation american family.

3.5 stars
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,009 reviews36k followers
May 16, 2021
This is a beautiful powerful historical fiction debut novel
about a Vietnam family escaping -- leaving at-- the end of the Vietnam war.
Many Vietnamese fled to America in the mid-1970s and quite a large number settled in Louisiana. Recent figures put the New Orleans Vietnamese population at around 14,000, the largest, most favorite Vietnamese community in the state.

Vietnamese Americans are the forth largest Asian American ethnic group after Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, and Indian Americans.
I live in a very populated Vietnamese area...but until reading “Things We Lost to the Water”....(unsettling immigration experiences...from financial struggles, homelessness, identity crisis, relationship chaos,
loneliness and displacement realities, etc.),
I wasn’t aware of the New Orleans Vietnamese culture....but It makes sense to me.
The climate and proximity to water in New Orleans is very similar to where the Vietnamese immigrants came from.

“Things We Lost to Water”, spans over thirty years. From the very start - I was drawn into the storytelling- the characters - their challenges- the grief/ even anger, associated with the spousal separation between Vietnam and New Orleans,....a mother trying to survive on her own with two young sons, ha, one was unborn child — the boys growing up - a heartbreaking path one of the boys take - the tender sensitive issue that faces the other....
Poverty, disasters, loss, language and cultural barriers...
my god -
.....it’s no accident for the title of this novel....[ it’s very clearly intentional- fitting].....a title that becomes more clear as we read on and on....
with themes of moving ... surviving....fears...
moving ....surviving....moving....fears....more moving....more surviving...

The Vietnamese experienced much loss in Vietnam to water....and when Hurricane Katrina hit ... the Vietnamese community in New Orleans suffered terrible flood damages as much as every other culture, but they seemed to recover emotionally and mentally better than whites or African Americans.
The Vietnamese-Americans come with unique and complex history, ....they experienced much loss, and endured endless hardships,
but their culture (over-flowingly), reminds me (and inspires me), that their close ethnic connections generates a type of social strength.

“The Things We Lost to Water”, represents so much change —water pouring away, .....
cleansing of painful emotions, .....
a reminder that no matter how hard life is....water can soften those hardships....
I really believe this!
Water is dangerous - it can destroy- its powerful - yet it can also heal.
I live this belief!

The depth of thoughts that this story invites from readers- to contemplate- under the surface of the storytelling itself - the characters we come to understand - are quite profound.

A great book club choice - discussion book - in my opinion.

5 strong stars ....
Author Eric Nguyen, with his elegant immersive prose, kept me effortlessly engaged from beginning to end.
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,286 reviews2,205 followers
May 15, 2021
This is a moving story of a Vietnamese family, separated by the expanse of water. The water imagery is skillfully interspersed throughout and the title perfectly illustrates that this is a story of loss. Huong escapes with one son and pregnant with another in 1978 after the fall of Saigon. Her husband doesn’t make the escape. Hopeful that he will, she sends letters and tape recordings to him as she settles in New Orleans with her sons. Life in New Orleans is not easy. The story depicts the difficulties faced by a refugee mother trying make a good life for her two sons . Life isn’t easy for her sons either. Tuan is bullied in school, just trying to find acceptance. Binh, born after their arrival and prefers to be called Ben, tries to find his way forward as he grapples with accepting his sexuality when his family does not. In an effort to protect her sons, Huong keeps a secret from them about their father and when discovered it creates a rift between them.

In alternating narratives, the experiences of these three characters are portrayed through the years from 1978 through the arrival of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The chapters move forward pretty quickly and perhaps it was the gaps in time that kept me from feeling emotionally connected to them until about three quarters through novel . While it was not a solid four stars for me because of this, I had to round it up because Eric Nguyen in his debut novel does a great job of giving a glimpse of the impact of the Vietnam war and the Vietnamese immigrant experience through this family who spite of the things they lost have the desire to find each other.

I received a copy of this book from Knopf through Edelweiss.
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,460 reviews8,564 followers
May 19, 2021
A powerful novel about a young mother who leaves Vietnam with her two sons and arrives in New Orleans in 1979. Over the next 26 years, we see how Huong and her two sons, Tuan and Binh/Ben, cope with the challenges of acculturation, racism, and connection/disconnection with one another. I loved how this novel challenged the model minority myth and showed all three characters as real people instead of Asian stereotypes, such as how Tuan joins a local Vietnamese gang whereas Binh experiments with other guys, with neither brother turning into an academic math-oriented whiz kid. Tuan and Binh’s narratives felt like skillful portrayals of how masculinity and sexual orientation interact with race for 1.5 and 2nd generation Vietnamese Americans. I felt my heart most moved by Huong’s sections and how much she loved her sons despite her difficulty in raising them. Eric Nguyen’s immersive writing humanized these characters in their search for belonging and love amidst sacrifice and struggle.

I agree with other reviewers who wish that the book was longer so that we could explore these characters more. I felt a lot of empathy and care for Huong and Tuan, though ironically, I felt less attached to Binh even though I’m also a 2nd generation queer Vietnamese man. I wanted more space for him to grow into his own person and I’m unsure if the trip he takes toward the end of the novel helped develop his character in a meaningful way. Still, I’d recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys a beautifully-told family saga, as it reminded me of a combination of Ocean Vuong’s more lyrical On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous with the groundedness of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. A few miscellaneous elements of the novel I also enjoyed included the presence of Vietnamese sprinkled in throughout the prose, the romantic pairing of a Haitian woman and Vietnamese man (yay for some representation of interracial couples that aren’t Asian/white), and the characters’ complex feelings toward communism and Catholicism.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,467 reviews564 followers
May 12, 2021
A striking novel about a young mother who leaves Viet Nam in 1979 with her two young boys to live in New Orleans East. Because the structure jumps between characters and time, it was a while before I settled into this novel, but then I didn't want to put it down. The title describes it well - husband and father left behind (and water) permeates the lives of Huong, Tuan and Binh. A deep, original portrait of a Vietnamese American family that will stay with me.
Profile Image for Larry H.
2,484 reviews29.4k followers
June 11, 2021
Eric Nguyen's debut novel, Things We Lost to the Water , is a beautifully written look at an immigrant Vietnamese family, and how their lives are shaped or reshaped by America.

Huong and her two young sons leave Vietnam in 1979 and move to New Orleans. Huong’s husband, Cong, stays in Vietnam, although she looks forward to the day they will be reunited. She sends letters and audiotapes home to Vietnam in the hopes that her words will motivate him to come to America, so her boys can know their father.

As she starts to settle in to their new home, Huong starts to lose hope that she’ll ever see her husband again. But she’s determined to create a better life for her sons, even though it’s hard to understand what it’s like for them growing up when you’re different to those around you.

“If her sons asked about their father, she told herself, she would tell them some kind of truth, what she knew of it: their father would not be joining them in New Orleans; this was all beyond their control and they had to try their best, she would say, to move forward.”

The book moves forward as snapshots in time, from 1979 to 2005, narrated by Huong and her sons. Huong becomes more acclimated to life in America and becomes involved with a Vietnamese car salesman. Her older son, Tuan, tries to keep his Vietnamese identity by joining a gang and trying to prove himself, while her younger son Binh, who calls himself Ben, struggles with his sexuality and his desire to escape the life his mother has built.

Ultimately they are all changed when New Orleans faces its greatest challenge ever. Will it bring them together or push them further apart?

I was so taken in by Eric Nguyen’s storytelling ability. It’s so hard to believe that Things We Lost to the Water was a debut novel. This story is thought-provoking and moving, although the challenge of the narrative structure is I didn’t feel like I got to know the characters as well as I would have liked, because we saw them in short bursts rather than consistently.

I definitely believe this will be a highly talked-about book, and I look forward to seeing what’s next in Nguyen’s career!

Check out my list of the best books I read in 2020 at https://itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com/2021/01/the-best-books-i-read-in-2020.html.

See all of my reviews at itseithersadnessoreuphoria.blogspot.com.

Follow me on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/the.bookishworld.of.yrralh/.
Profile Image for Mai Nguyễn.
Author 11 books1,402 followers
December 10, 2020
A devastatingly beautiful debut novel of secrets, deceits, and survivals. An extraordinary tale of a mother and her two sons, torn apart by the storms of Vietnam, to be tested again by the hurricanes of New Orleans. The end has me weeping from joy, sorrow and hope. Eric Nguyen’s talent radiates via his urgent prose and his ability to sketch the fine line between loyalty and betrayal, between what brings us together and what breaks us apart. THINGS WE LOST TO THE WATER is a powerful, stunning, and necessary read!
Profile Image for Trinh.
352 reviews242 followers
May 10, 2021
I'm very sad that I ended up not loving this book at all. One of the things that frustrated me is that there's so much telling in this novel. Also, the time jump is jarring, and I feel like we're missing so much. For example, I remember reading a chapter where Tuan was being bullied as a child. The next time we see him, he's 18 years old, trying to join a Vietnamese gang. I was shocked and confused because so much time has passed. Lastly, all of the characters change so much, but we don't get to see them grow throughout the book. Instead, we see them in different aspects of their lives, and it just feels weird. I hate it say it, but this is one of the most disappointing books of the year for me.
May 30, 2022
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3 ¼ stars

“How unrecognizable America had made them, she was thinking, all of them.”

Subtle yet deeply evocative Things We Lost to the Water is a novel about belonging and displacement. In a similar fashion to Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, Eric Nguyen's novel does not adopt the traditional structure that characterises family sagas (which usually offer an all-encompassing view of a family), honing in instead on specific periods of her characters' lives. These moments do not always reveal crucial aspects of their identities and or experiences but they do succeed in giving us a crystal-clear snapshot of a particular moment in their lives.

“How much could they remember? There must have been a limit, a moment of transition when they were more American than Vietnamese, and there was no going back.”

The narrative, which spans three decades, from 1978 to 2005, and alternates between Hương, a young woman who was forced to leave Vietnam, and her two sons, Tuấn, aged 6, and Bình, who was born at a refugee camp in Singapore and is just a baby by the time they relocate to New Orleans. Công, Hương's husband and the children's father is still in Vietnam with the plan that he will join them at a later date. In New Orleans, Hương not only has to adapt to a new culture and language, but she has to provide for her two sons.

“The world was cold and wild. A country could collapse. A father could disappear. She would have to protect her sons, she was thinking, protect them from all the cruelties of the world.”

Although Hương moves to a Vietnamese neighbourhood in New Orleans she feels deeply isolated. She attempts to keep loneliness at bay by sending tape recordings to Công. Soon these tapes become a lifeline, a connection to her husband and to Vietnam itself. As time passes however Hương is forced to confront the possibility that Công will not be joining her in New Orleans after all. Later on, and to her sons' chagrin, she begins dating a car salesman, who is also Vietnamese.
Meanwhile at school Tuấn experiences racism, from being bullied for his accent to being treated as if he were ‘slower' than his peers. Unlike his younger brother, Tuấn has memories of their father, he can speak Vietnamese, even if in time he loses his fluency, and during their early years in America he does seem to yearn to return ‘home’, that is Vietnam. He eventually begins dating a Vietnamese girl who soon pressures him into joining a gang.
Bình decides to go by Ben, a name more or less thrust upon him by his teachers/peers, and unlike his older brother and mother is quick to embrace American culture and values. His storyline, sadly, was the most predictable of the three as it seems a step-by-step queer coming of age/sexual awakening.
Over the years the three begin to drift apart as they embark on incrementally diverging paths. Yet, they are united in their longing for something (be it the roads not taken or Vietnam or Công or to feel like they belong).

“Wanting—what a strange feeling, what a queer idea to have toward another person! You could want food, you could want rest, you could want safety, and—it dawned on him—you could want a person, too.”

Each chapter presents us with a different period in these characters' lives. At times these glimpses felt too brief or inclusive. We may witness an argument or some other conflict, and we never really see how those fights/disagreements are resolved. The next chapter will jump ahead in time and to a different character without providing us with an explanation/summary of what has happened since the last chapter. This gave their storylines a rather elusive and fragmented quality. We never truly gain a full picture of their lives or of who they are. Consequently, this made me feel at a remove from the characters. I wanted more from them but before I could get invested in what they were experiencing the narrative would march onwards, leaving so many things up in the air.

For the most part, I really liked the author's prose. In its apparent simplicity, it brought to mind authors like Anne Tyler and Jhumpa Lahiri. I also appreciated the author's focus on the quotidian; the snatches of conversations and or interactions we get are far from monumental but they provide us with an insight into the characters' everyday realities.
The dialogues were a hit or miss sometimes. Some brought to mind Benjamin Alire Sáenz (a favourite of mine), so that we have characters echoing each other, or speaking about nothing in particular. I found these to be extremely effective in conjuring specific moments as they really rang true to life. But, when it comes to exchanges of a more argumentative nature, these came across as somewhat forced, their rhythm was slightly off.

Still, this novel has a lot to offer. There is some beautiful recurring water imagery (which seem to serve a similar function to the trains in The Namesake) and plenty of atmospheric descriptions of New Orleans and Vietnam (alas I found the author's portrayal of France to be a bit too quaint: the wine, the bread, the man riding a bicycle). The novel is also characterised by an almost palpable sense of longing and offers a thought-provoking exploration of identity and family. Longer chapters would have probably made me feel more invested in the characters. By the time I began warming up to them or to gain a fuller impression of who they were the novel had come to a close.
As debuts go this is nevertheless a solid one and I look forward to reading more by this author.
Profile Image for Ari Levine.
192 reviews146 followers
May 4, 2021
3.5 stars, rounded down. This perceptive first novel follows the immigrant experience of a mother and her two sons, who arrive in New Orleans as refugees from Vietnam in 1979. Hoang has been forcibly separated from her husband, who has inexplicably stayed behind, and is haunted by his absence for many years, sending him letters and cassette tapes in distant hope of a reply.

She slowly reassembles the pieces of a new life in a housing project on the edge of the bayou, working long hours at a nail salon to support her boys, who grow up fatherless along different paths, without any parental guidance to help them navigate school and social pressures. Tuan, who escaped with Hoang as a small child, experiences racism at school and drifts into gang membership. Bing, who was born in a refugee camp and never met his father, is a sensitive boy who slowly comes to terms with his gay identity and his literary sensibilities.

Nguyen writes elegantly, and with real insight and empathy, regularly taking a third-person snapshot of one family member every year or so. He channels their distinctive individual voices and renders their perceptions of each other quite evocatively.

Some quibbles: some of the scenes felt a bit too dutiful and paint-by-the-numbers, and that the pacing was overly languid at times, until the overly rushed denouement. And especially that the water metaphors (swimming, flooding, drowning) were a bit too on the nose, even before (minor spoiler) Hurricane Katrina makes landfall. But perhaps these are unfair criticisms of a genuinely talented writer who has a great career ahead of him.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Knopf for sending me an ARC in exchange for an unbiased review.
Profile Image for Jonas.
180 reviews13 followers
May 3, 2023
Things We Lost to the Water allows the reader to experience the persecution of a Vietnamese family living in Vietnam during the war and their attempts to flee. It provides their perspective of the hardship of that experience including the separation from their families, friends, homeland, and way of life.

The majority of the book is told from multiple perspectives as characters navigate assimilating into American life while maintaining their Vietnamese identity. Like most immigrants, it is clear the parents hold on to and try maintain their identity from their homeland while the first generation children often try to assimilate into their new homeland. Each brother (one born in Vietnam and one the US) chooses a different path in regards to this inner struggle which is summed up nicely by this quote.

“There must have been a limit, a moment of transition when they were more American than Vietnamese, and there was no going back. Maybe they were fighting that, he thought, then he wondered what the point of fighting it was.”

I believe Things We Lost to the Water is an important read that helps readers better understand the experience of non-English speaking immigrants, especially those who don’t look like everyone else and those fleeing war. A reoccurring thread in the story is that people change and then explores how people adapt/react to those changes.

Having read Pachinko and Things We Lost to the Water back to back for book club, I couldn’t help but compare the two. Both books compared Catholicism to communism. Both were family dramas that involved fleeing war and had atypical family dynamics. Both families experienced racism and prejudice.

I wish I read the books a little further apart. Pachinko is one of my favorite books and a five star read. It is fully developed and elaborated. Whereas I felt the middle of/characters in The Things We Lost to Water were underdeveloped. We learn the most about the father even though he is absent for the majority of the book. The lives of his wife and sons lacked elaboration or closure in several areas where I would have expected more. It seemed to just jump to the next chapter/time period. That being said, the ending is incredibly well written. It is powerful and moving. Even though the characters weren’t developed as much as I would have liked, I still believe it is a book worth reading and recommend it.
Profile Image for Amanda at Bookish Brews.
291 reviews171 followers
May 21, 2021
Wow this book was absolutely stunning, if you have a minute, head over and read me ramble about how good it was. The more I think about it the more I love it. Check it out here. :)

Here's a review preview:

Breathtakingly beautiful, lyrical, stunning, devastating, important

I found Things We Lost to the Water a day before this book was published, through Loan Le on twitter. Considering A Pho Love Story was one of my favorite recent reads (you can read my review here, if you want!), I immediately requested to read it. I didn’t even look into it past the fact that it goes into the immigrant experience of a Vietnamese family. Let me tell you that it did not disappoint. This story was incredible. I soaked in every moment of it with deep emotion and appreciation that this book exists.

Things We Lost to the Water follows a mother and her two sons who escape from Vietnam and make it to New Orleans. It’s an epic family tale, spanning 26 years that tells of how the family grows, falls apart, and grapples with what it means to be Vietnamese in New Orleans.

It’s hard to put into words how great this book was. It’s full of so many small experiences and feelings that to mention every thing would be too much. The book dives into the deep complexities of being forced to leave Vietnam and start a new life for yourself in a new country. A country that doesn’t care about you, but that you find yourself, inevitably, assimilating into. It shows us the feeling of longing for a place and a people you’ve never been through the sons, and the repercussions of wanting to shield your children from your trauma from the mother. Continue reading...

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I received a free copy of this book and am leaving this review voluntarily
Profile Image for Tina.
634 reviews80 followers
April 18, 2021
THINGS WE LOST TO THE WATER by Eric Nguyen is an excellent and heartbreaking debut novel! This story is about Huong and her two sons who immigrated from Vietnam to New Orleans. Right away I was immediately transported to Huong’s struggles as she begins her new life. There were some very touching moments in the book when her sons encountered hate and racism that brought me to tears. It was so easy for me to connect to these characters. I found myself totally engrossed and I finished this book in less than 24 hours! I loved the expansive timeline and the focus on each family member. It’s a truly remarkable story about one family’s desire to stay afloat in life and with each other. Highly recommend!!
Thank you to Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group via NetGalley for my uncorrected proof!
Profile Image for Camille McCarthy.
Author 1 book27 followers
June 1, 2021
I'm a little confused by all the positive praise this book has received. I felt like it was sadly very dull and I felt like none of the characters were fully fleshed out. The time jumps were jarring and didn't really give us a sense of who these characters were - and the ending felt really anticlimactic. It probably doesn't help/isn't fair that I am a huge fan of Viet Thanh Nguyen and couldn't help comparing them because the characters have had similar experiences of war and being refugees. Viet Thanh Nguyen adds a lot of nuance to his characters' lives and in the case of "the Sympathizer" and "the Committed" makes the events explicitly political while I felt like Eric Nguyen's characters followed a sort of cliched immigration story, especially in terms of the absolute lack of political analysis by any of the characters, except a very surface-level mention of hating communists or how the younger brother ends up with a communist/anarchist partner in Paris. The characters end up making odd decisions or taking actions that are not fully understandable by the reader because we don't know the characters well enough so their motivations seem pretty random.
This book reminded me a lot of a book called "We Are Not Ourselves" which also had a similar plodding plot where nothing much ever happened and even though it was very long, the characters' actions and motivations didn't make much sense to me. This author has a lot of praise and I know this was a highly-anticipated novel so I am curious to check out his other work, to see if his writing style is a little more interesting in other forms.
One thing I really liked was that Eric Nguyen used a lot of Vietnamese phrases and accent marks on names of characters and places, and didn't immediately have English translations right after. You could usually figure out what was said based on context and there were sometimes clues about how to pronounce different words, so it was easy to follow. I wish there had been a glossary in the back to know how to pronounce these words in my head as I was reading but I really appreciated the inclusion of some Vietnamese language in this book, as it made it feel more realistic and was one of the elements that helped me envision this family as real people.
Profile Image for jiyoon.
141 reviews7 followers
April 22, 2021
*thank you to knopf for sending me a finished copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review!

the writing in this book is so beautiful that it pains me to give THINGS WE LOST TO THE WATER 3 stars rather than 4, but it really came down to pacing issues. the story stretched out a lot in the middle and very much rushed its ending; we didn’t get to spend enough time with any of the characters as they created lives for themselves in new orleans, but particularly not tuan or ben/binh.

nguyen writing style makes his story unfold like a stack of photographs — we get to check in with our characters to see new snapshots from their lives, but we don’t get to watch them get from point A to point the B. we just know they get there. while this can be striking, it sometimes makes events feel too abrupt — like when tuan has a certain realization, or when binh and his mom have a fight and we never find out how (or if!) things were resolved and their relationship changed.

i also felt like there was some emotional distance between the characters and myself. i wasn’t really able to feel or believe the depth of most of the relationships in this book, and i do think this is because we weren’t given a lot of time to watch these relationships in action ourselves. and many people probably won’t mind this; i just prefer a heaping dose of emotional vulnerability/intimacy in my family epics !

but again: the writing was gorgeous and could be absolutely heartbreaking. nguyen does an amazing job of communicating how devastating wars are, even when they technically come to an end.

full review to come

**THINGS WE LOST TO THE WATER comes out on MAY 4**
Profile Image for Dan.
453 reviews4 followers
July 21, 2021
In Things We Lost to the Water, debut novelist Eric Nguyen tells a warm and ultimately sweet story of a fractured family in the Vietnamese diaspora. Huong and her young sons Tuân and Bình flee Vietnam soon after its reunification, while her husband Cong unexpectedly stays behind. Things We Lost to the Water takes place mostly in New Orleans East projects from the family’s arrival in 1978 and ends at Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with brief side trips for Huong and Tuân to Vietnam and Bình, now Ben, to Paris. Nguyen succeeds in transporting the this reader into the family’s lives as they struggle to assimilate, to keep emotional and cultural ties to their homeland, and to retain their memories of their absent husband and father. But despite Nguyen’s strengths as a convincing story-teller, Things We Lost to the Water left me unsatisfied with the incomplete and puzzling mysteries of Tuân’s transition from gang life, Bình’s academic achievements, and Cong’s luxurious life in Vietnam. Things We Lost to the Water stands as a good story about the Vietnamese diaspora and immigrant life, but left me hoping for more understanding. 3.5 stars
Profile Image for Delaney.
652 reviews106 followers
June 26, 2022
• Plays "Big Girls Don't Cry" by Fergie...then proceeds to cry
• Quiet but angsty, similar vibes to On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous and The Vanishing Half
• Beautiful writing, made me feel comfy
• Vietnamese gangs (yes they exist!)
• 3 different character feeling not American enough in America and explores the immigrant trauma
• the author really water bended my Viet ass with this one (I mean that in the highest compliment possible)

Eric Nguyen managed to weave in so many different plot points, points which he could have definitely veered off to. But I REALLY liked how he stuck with this singular theme of home—being at home within yourself, with yourself, with your surroundings, and with the people you love.
Profile Image for BookNightOwl.
977 reviews174 followers
June 2, 2021
What a wonderful thought provoking story. This story is about Vietnamese mother and child who fled Vietnam to New Orleans for safety. This story focuses on grief, life, family, Identity and so much more. I loved the writing and the story telling. I enjoyed the characters and their personal challenges through out the book. Felt the ending was a little rushed but still gave it an A-
460 reviews16 followers
June 10, 2021
Original Review is lost. Frustration!!! TWLTTW tells the story of a young,educated Vietnamese family during the war in the late 1970's.Houng, the pregnant wife and her little son are separated from her husband as they escape Vietnam on a boat. Her husband ,Cong, is lost from her. As refugees, Houng and her young children eventually end up in New Orleans. There , Houng reaches out with letters and tapes of her little sons babble trying to find Cong telling him she needs him with her, needs his help to raise their sons. Much of the mail is returned to her battered until she receives a post saying Cong is lost to her, send no more letters. The story carries on to the time of the hurricane Katrina. Water separates countries and signals change in people. Oceans, tears, bayou, floods,sweat, rain. Immersion in water separates and isolates. Reading this book makes me admire the fortitude and strength of the immigrant to endure language barriers, lost culture, loneliness , resolve to make a better life. All that is left is what is had with one another.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Kylie Sparkle.
69 reviews2 followers
May 16, 2021
The story was beautifully written but I did not enjoy that it told you rather than show you style. I also would have liked to get more of Huong's story. I found the time skips and jumping to her children's point of view a bit boring.
Profile Image for Nursebookie.
2,049 reviews316 followers
June 12, 2021
I loved this gorgeous and captivating debut novel by Eric Nguyen, whose story spanned three decades and chronicled the lives of a Vietnamese refugee family who fled to the U.S.

In Things We Lost to the Water, Nguyen took us through a journey of one family’s courageous determination to survive in this tender yet powerful story of love and loss, and through storms and hurricanes.

This story will resonate with anyone who had struggled and triumphed.
Profile Image for KayHokis.
293 reviews54 followers
May 8, 2021
I finished this book last night and wanted to sit with it before I wrote a review, mostly because I wanted to keep my feelings close to the chest and also because I absolutely loved it. If there’s a contest for my favorite read of 2021, this is a front runner.

I always think I’m not into historical fiction and then one comes along and smacks me in the face to remind me that yes, I often do, but I also feel like the genre is rampant with active war which is not my thing.

There IS war in this novel, but it starts there with a mother and her two sons (one still in the womb) escaping from the Vietnam war and ending up in New Orleans. 95% of the novel is more about the aftermath of that than the war itself. It is a very character focused story. We see chapters from all three characters as decades pass and the sons grow up and take on very different lives, and there is truly nothing I love more in literary work than following a characters journey over time. As long as it’s done well, of course, and Eric Nguyen really hit it out of the park. I cared so much about each character. They were flawed and human and wonderful.

The story culminates with Hurricane Katrina, and while I expected there to be a lot more of this aspect in the story since it is part of the summary, I think the way this devastating storm was utilized was perfect.

The ending may be abrupt for some readers but I absolutely loved it. I had tears in my eyes and I didn’t want to let the story go! Highly recommend if this review resonates with you and aligns with your tastes.
Profile Image for Joanna.
191 reviews2 followers
May 9, 2021
THINGS WE LOST TO THE WATER by Eric Nguyen is a tender and beautiful novel about family, heritage, belonging, and identity.

Spanning 30 years, it follows the story of a Vietnamese family who flees Vietnam after the war to start a new life. However, Hương is separated from her husband Công as they flee and ends up in New Orleans alone with her two sons while her husband remains in Vietnam. Huong and her sons Tuấn and Bình must learn to survive and find their place in their new home.

The writing is very engaging, and I found myself heavily invested in these characters. Each is very distinct and has their own struggles - Hương trying to accept the loss of her husband while raising her sons, Tuấn working to understand what it means to be Vietnamese and connecting with his missing heritage, and Bình trying to understand himself and his place in the world. I felt a close connection with all these characters and felt their pain of trying to understand what it means to be a family.

This is a beautiful novel that vividly depicts the pain and struggles of being displaced and trying to assimilate. But it also gives us a sense of hope in the wake of loss and the possibilities of the future. This is a stunning and emotional debut novel and I highly recommend it.

I received an ARC from the publisher, Knopf, in exchange for an honest review
Profile Image for Julie Tieu.
Author 3 books290 followers
January 26, 2021
In THINGS WE LOST TO THE WATER, Huong is separated from her husband when she flees Vietnam in 1978 and resettles in New Orleans with her two sons, Tuan and Binh/Ben. The story is beautifully told from all three of their point of views as they each struggle to find their place in their new country and how the trauma of war and separation fractures their relationships with one another. Throughout the novel, each of them seeks to reconnect with the life they left behind (or in Ben’s case, a father he never knew). Those attempts brought mixed results—moments of hope, grief, joy, and regret—at different phases of their lives. The writing kept me at the edge of me seat as I watched the fragile nature of this family’s dynamic ebb and flow. I often found the specificity in the small, day-to-day scenes in their lives most thoughtful and captivating.

Thank you NetGalley and Knopf for the ARC!
Profile Image for Paul.
1,189 reviews52 followers
May 22, 2021
Although the American immigrant experience is diverse, the literature it has inspired features certain tropes, like generational conflict, pressure to assimilate, and racism. That's not a criticism, just a fact, since every community of new arrivals, from Afghans to Zimbabweans, might come from a unique culture but must adjust to America's hybridized, commercialized, sterilized one . Mr. Nguyen seems aware that he's not attempting anything radically new in this saga of a family of Vietnamese "boat people" settling in east New Orleans, but he shouldn't let that dispirit him so much. This book is listless (the characters bore themselves) and predictable (just GUESS what cataclysmic NOLA event provides the climax). If he had nothing startlingly original to say, couldn't Mr. Nguyen have at least tried to find a startlingly original way to say it?
787 reviews127 followers
June 8, 2021
The storycrafting here is very good.  I found this book immediately gripping and it remained so till the end.  

I didn't think the climax had a strong impact and the ending seemed to peter out a bit and left loose ends.  But overall, this was satisfying...I'll put it this way: I didn't want to set the book aside to go to sleep and I didn't want to keep reading as I'd be closer to finishing it. I'm still amazed this is a debut given its quality.

The writing is very solid, straight-forward and plainspoken, etc.  This made the story more accessible.  

And I will add that the use of Vietnamese language without translation or contextual clues was generally good and I support it. But it became too much and then tiresome at a certain point.  Here's why: the Vietnamese refugee mother is "thinking" throughout; and while in print, it's English, we still know she's doing so in Vietnamese. As an anglophone reader, I only need to get a flavor of Vietnamese language or to view its significance here.  It seemed artificial after a while and don't get me started about when French was handled similarly...I was oversaturated by then.

A favorite quote:

The last war was on a different shore, with different people, in a different country, and there's no going back, back to that life. She realizes this now, but that doesn't make it ache any less. In fact, the ache grows. It grows into two boys, and the two boys grow into two sons, and those sons grow to look like their father, uncannily like their father in their moods, their movements, their voices, so that it's always like she's losing him again--to the world, to life, to fate.
Profile Image for Novel Visits.
694 reviews240 followers
May 21, 2021
Rounded up from 4.5 stars

Some books start out strong and some books end strong. 𝐓𝐇𝐈𝐍𝐆𝐒 𝗪𝐄 𝐋𝐎𝐒𝐓 𝐓𝐎 𝐓𝐇𝐄 𝗪𝐀𝐓𝐄𝐑 by Eric Nguyen is one of those books that does both. As the story opens in 1979, we meet Huong and her two young sons, Tuấn, 4, and Binh, a baby. They have just arrived in New Orleans, after first leaving Vietnam by boat and then spending time in a refugee camp. In the chaos of fleeing, Huong’s husband, Cong, did not make it onto the boat. Nguyen did a beautiful job laying out their story in a chronological order, with each member of the family sharing his or her perspectives of what was happening in their lives. We see both their fear and anxiety around being in a new land, and their desire to make a full life there. We also feel their pain at not having Cong with them.⁣

I loved that first part of this book, then it slowed down a little for me, but at about the halfway point the story really took off. This was when the perspective from Bihn/Ben began to appear in the rotation, adding more depth to the family story. Somehow, this character added more life, more urgency to the whole story. Each family member had secrets that rippled out to affect the others. I don’t want to say much more, but I do want you to know that 𝘛𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨𝘴 𝘞𝘦 𝘓𝘰𝘴𝘵 𝘵𝘰 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘞𝘢𝘵𝘦𝘳 was a beautifully rendered story that grew stronger and stronger as it neared the end. As I put it down, I felt awed by Nguyen’s debut. His writing was stellar, his character development, subtly layered, and his sense of place, transported me. I can’t wait to read whatever he writes next.

Many thanks to @aaknopf for this beautiful finished copy.⁣
Profile Image for Phương.
94 reviews44 followers
October 12, 2021
eARC provied by NetGally in exchange for an honest review but I've been and will always be a procastinator so...

Considering this is debut work, I appreciate the author’s effort to highlight the post-American War struggles Vietnamese-Americans went through. But the narrative didn’t do it justice for me. All three main characters felt one-dimensional, each having seemingly only one personality trait to cling onto and to revolve their character around, therefore they lack depth. They didn’t have their own coherent plotlines to follow either, the events were just very random and didn’t significantly affect their personalities. So without a decent storyline and any rather well-built characters, I was left to be disappointed.

I don’t have issues with the author’s English writing, but his usage of foreign words and phrases kinda pissed me off. So many of these Vietnamese words felt redundant and unnecessary. They didn’t show any meaningful cultural details but many were just there for being Vietnamese words. The same goes for the French phrases. If it wasn’t for me having a decent enough knowledge of all these three languages, I would have DNF-ed it a long time ago. And most of them never came with an explanation or translation! If Eric Nguyen meant this fictional experience to be shared and to be empathized by other readers, he should’ve made it more accessible to them.

In conclusion, this was a very flawed book. But debut works usually have flaws. And I believe in Eric Nguyen to show improvement in his next projects.
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