Book Review: Family in Six Tones by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao

For fans of On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous, and other immigrant memoirs, a new story that you will absolutely love.

Goodreads Blurb

Family in Six Tones by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao

A dual first-person memoir by the acclaimed Vietnamese-American novelist and her thoroughly American teenage daughter

After more than forty years in the United States, Lan Cao still feels tentative about her place in her adoptive country, one which she came to as a thirteen-year old refugee. And after sixteen years of being a mother, she still ventures through motherhood as if it is a foreign landscape. In this lyrical memoir, Lan explores these two defining experiences of her life with the help of her fierce, independently-minded daughter, Harlan Margaret Van Cao.

In chapters that both reflect and refract her mother’s narrative, Harlan describes the rites of passage of childhood and adolescence, as they are filtered through the aftereffects of her family’s history of war, tragedy, and migration. Lan responds in turn, trying to understand her American daughter through the lens of her own battles with culture clash and bullying. In this unique format of alternating storytelling, their complicated mother-daughter relationship begins to crystallize. Lan’s struggles with the traumatic aftermath of war–punctuated by emotional, detailed flashbacks to her childhood–become operatic and fantastical interludes as told by her daughter. Harlan’s struggle to make friends in high school challenges her mother to step back and let her daughter find her own way.

Family in Six Tones is at once special and universal, speaking to the unique struggles of refugees as well as the universal tug-of-war between mothers and daughters. The journey of a refugee–away from war and loss towards peace and a new life–and the journey of a mother raising a child–to be secure and happy–are both steep paths filled with detours and stumbling blocks. Through explosive fights and painful setbacks, mother and daughter search for a way to accept the past and face the future together. 

Family in Six Tones Book Cover


The blurb says so much already, what else can I tell you about Family in Six Tones? Well, for one, it is a really beautiful book. I’m usually a pretty fast reader but I found myself slowing down on this one, savouring every word. Both women’s stories were just so touching and filled with emotion that I couldn’t do anything else but throw myself into the experience of reading their stories.

For me, there were two sides to this book. The first side was a means of learning more about the Vietnam war, the Vietnamese culture, and what it was like to take this culture to the US. By reading Family in Six Tones, I learned a lot. A lot of fact, but, most importantly, I learned a lot about the human experience. What it is like to be a fish out of water in a new place. What it is like to carry serious trauma through your life and not be able to deal with it. What it is like to have a mother/daughter with a different culture to you and the struggles that can bring.

The second side of this book is the mother/daughter relationship. Both women are brutally honest in discussing their relationship. That meant there were times when I felt sympathetic and understanding toward one or both, while other times I disliked them because of their selfishness and unwillingness to help one another and their relationship. It made for a conflicting but genuine read.

Overall, I both enjoyed and learned from Family in Six Tones. I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in this genre.

Family in Six Tones is available to buy now.

I was sent a copy of this book in return for an honest review.

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