While Asian protagonists are no longer rare in young adult fiction, some cultures seem more prevalent in the genre than others. Think Jenny Han’s books and the various K-Pop stories, as well as Taiwanese-American stories like Loveboat Taipei and Rent a Boyfriend. In an apparent first, Loan Le’s debut novel, A Pho Love Story, adds to this list with a rom-com featuring Vietnamese-American teens. Although the details of the Vietnamese refugee experience may not be familiar to all teens, the restaurant setting and accompanying food most likely will be.
The story centers around US-born high school seniors Linh and Bao, both the children of restaurant owners. They are typical teens who hang out with friends and spend time in the creative fields of painting and writing, respectfully. But they also work evenings and weekends at their parents’ restaurants and are forbidden from speaking to each other due to a huge falling out that tore their families apart in Nha Trang decades earlier.
A Pho Love Story is a rom-com, so it’s inevitable that Linh and Bao will become an item. This occurs one night when Linh feels overwhelmed because her family’s restaurant is short-staffed and her father’s bad back has rendered him practically useless when it comes to handling dozens of hungry diners. Bao spots Linh outside in the alley trying to take a quick break from the dinner rush. His parents’ restaurant has closed for the evening, so he offers to secretly help out while Linh’s parents remain oblivious back in the kitchen. Bao is the more daring of the two and grows frustrated when Linh doesn’t want his help at first.
I’m instigating some sort of plan that Linh clearly doesn’t want to take part in. I shouldn’t have even come. Annoyance runs through me—at Linh for bringing up their confusing feud when I was only trying to help; at me for thoughtlessly running into this whole situation that had nothing to do with me—for reasons I’m not capable of understanding right now. I should just go back, return to our separate stories as background characters in each other’s small worlds.
Similar to other Asian American stories, both sets of parents want their children to succeed in careers that will guarantee a steady income, something like medicine and engineering. So the two bond through their desire to pursue creative fields. It’s not difficult to predict the end of the story.
Food is central to this book, perhaps deliberately so as a way to engage teens regardless of background or familiarity with the Vietnamese-American experience. Phở is by now a more or less household name, as is bánh mì, but Le also writes about bánh xèo, a pan fried stuffed rice pancake, and bún bò Huế, a spicy beef noodle soup.
But Le also sprinkles in a generous amount of Vietnamese terms and sentences, sometimes without translating them. For instance, when Linh and her mother finally discuss Linh’s friendship with Bao, her mother speaks out in anger.
This isn’t just about the boy or his family. Con này nói láo từ hồi nào tới giờ,” my mother interjects, directing her anger at Ba. She twists the water off, wrenches her gloves. They smack against the sink. Her sharp voice stuns me, jumps out into the space between us like a flame on the stove turned up too high.
The meaning can sometimes be gleaned from context, but this seems contrary to the implied objective of writing a story accessible to all readers. Le can also gloss over elements whose importance may be evident to readers of Vietnamese extraction, but not so to others: during Tet or lunar new year parade revelers fly the South Vietnamese flag, a flag that has been without a country since 1975.
A Pho Love Story is nevertheless evidence of increasing diversity in young adult literature, both in general but also in terms of the specific ethnicities represented, and an illustration of how much the genre has evolved over the past few decades. Phở may be a new normal.
Jennifer Yen also sets A Taste for Love, her first rom-com, in a restaurant setting. Liza Yang is a high school senior at a prestigious Houston academy where students vie for Ivy League admissions. But Liza sets her sights elsewhere: she hopes to attend culinary school. Liza’s parents own a Taiwanese restaurant and bakery and—treading a common young adult path of parental involvement in their offspring’s life and career choices—they hope Liza and her older sister enter fields less taxing than the restaurant industry.
Yen’s restaurant setting features more than just a restaurant rivalry; it centers arounds a Chinese bake-off contest sponsored by Liza’s family’s bakery. On top of that, Liza’s mother uses the annual contest as a way to find a suitable partner for Liza. All contestants turn out to be teenage boys.
The Bachelorette situation Liza has found herself in is made even worse when she happens to be grudgingly attracted to one of the contestants: the stoic, impenetrable, annoying hot James Wong. As she battles against her feelings for James, and for her mother’s approval, Liza begins to realize there’s no tried-and-true recipe for love.
Yen’s story goes off on a bit of a tangent as Liza, James, and their friends become entwined in convoluted side stories that involve a New York male model, Liza’s sister, and James’s cousin. Nevertheless, teenage readers, whether of Asian extraction or not, can bond over the boba tea.