4 star, YA

Review: A Pho Love Story by Loan Le

If Bao Nguyen had to describe himself, he’d say he was a rock. Steady and strong, but not particularly interesting. His grades are average, his social status unremarkable. He works at his parents’ pho restaurant, and even there, he is his parents’ fifth favorite employee. Not ideal.

If Linh Mai had to describe herself, she’d say she was a firecracker. Stable when unlit, but full of potential for joy and fire. She loves art and dreams pursuing a career in it. The only problem? Her parents rely on her in ways they’re not willing to admit, including working practically full-time at her family’s pho restaurant.

For years, the Mais and the Nguyens have been at odds, having owned competing, neighboring pho restaurants. Bao and Linh, who’ve avoided each other for most of their lives, both suspect that the feud stems from feelings much deeper than friendly competition.

But then a chance encounter brings Linh and Bao in the same vicinity despite their best efforts and sparks fly, leading them both to wonder what took so long for them to connect. But then, of course, they immediately remember.

Can Linh and Bao find love in the midst of feuding families and complicated histories?

When Dimple Met Rishi meets Ugly Delicious in this funny, smart romantic comedy, in which two Vietnamese-American teens fall in love and must navigate their newfound relationship amid their families’ age-old feud about their competing, neighboring restaurants.

A true ode to Vietnamese culture and cuisine, A Pho Love Story delivers an insightful look into foods shared and eaten and the dynamics of family who have survived the horrors of a civil war. While you may instantly think this is a Romeo and Juliet kind of retelling, I am here to tell you that it is so much more.

Linh and Bao work at their respective family restaurants which are unfortunately situated across the street from each other. Told from childhood that they should never, ever interact with the enemy, they were like two passing ships in the night only seeing one another from afar but never interacting even at school. Looking at this synopsis, of course you would think this is just a simple own-voices kind of romance story. It is, I agree, but there is just so much more about Linh and Bao than a sit-in Juliet and Romeo with feuding restaurant families.

When comparing this book to Ugly Delicious, I initially thought that was a weird description. If you have ever watched the hit Netflix show starring chef Dave Chang, there’s nothing romantic about it. Just lots of different foods he explores. Yet, having finished this, it was the perfect description because there were so many Vietnamese dishes described here. I was getting cravings while flipping through the pages. From banh xeo (a crepe-like dish with pork/shrimp and bean sprouts inside) and pho (warm noodles in savory broth) to ca phe sua da (Vietnamese ice coffee – drip it!) and che thai (a dessert of colourful fruit jellies swimming in coconut milk), this book really takes a look at the foods the restaurants create and what they mean to the Vietnamese culture. I will say that this was one of my favourite parts of the story. I came in for a forbidden romance tale (which I got, to be fair), but I came out with so much more.

Besides food, it takes a real dive into what it’s like to be a daughter or son of Vietnamese immigrants. They remind me a lot of my own parents’ experiences as some things traverse all Asian culture. The expectations placed on both Linh and Bao, particularly Linh, to find a stable and secure job was big in this one.

“This is why I’m happy to see [your sister] find her way. She will live a life that’s not kho. Unlike I had. Unlike your aunt. And soon enough you will have a good life too.”

A good life. A good life only comes if you have security — that’s what my mom’s basically saying. Anything beyond that is just a pipe dream.

Linh is an artist, something she cannot share with her parents because they want her to aim for a well-paying professional job. They have already got her older sister in college studying biology, a satisfactory feeling that they have done their job and do not have to worry about her future. So with plenty of guilt, Linh juggles knowing where her passions and talents lie while wanting to lessen the worry her parents have for her.

This may sound like the parents have no business pushing their kids to pursue their dreams, but you have to understand that it’s all the context of everything they gave up. They lived the hard life in a new country so that they can provide for their kids a better future that would not be as hard or stressful. I personally have been on the other end of this experience, balancing practicality and what I know I love to do. There’s no easy way to go, and I empathized a lot with Linh as her lies to her parents catch up to her.

Bao also faces the uncertainty of the future as he believes he isn’t good at anything. While Linh has her art and is clearly super gifted, he has not found his thing yet. Except maybe his humorous self-deprecation.

Maybe I should have played it off, thinking about how guys are supposed to be cool and charming — like the male leads of so many films: Chris Pine, Will Smith, Henry Golding. In reality I’m more of a Randall Park character.

As the story continues, we do see the love angle play out. They are put together to review food restaurants for their high school newspaper as they are both aptly qualified to judge restaurant food. With forbidden romance comes more lies and secrets until it all comes to a head. I like the balance of this romance story with both Linh and Bao’s family background. The romance wouldn’t make sense if we didn’t understand why there were such pressures to stay away from one another, and that all leads back to their families. In a unique way I have yet to see in another YA romance story, this expertly weaves together love, family, culture and food for a beautiful book that is all things Vietnamese. We need more stories like this in the world, especially for YA audiences.

As a side note to conclude, my boyfriend is Vietnamese and some of these experiences made me think of them a lot. I cannot imagine what it must’ve been like, losing everything you loved about home to escape to a foreign place who was not always welcoming to those who were different. I also now have a greater appreciation for their food, something I previously just ate for flavour, but now see as more layered and complex than that.

I cannot recommend A Pho Love Story more. Not only because I’m Asian and fully understand the universal elements of the Asian immigrant experience, but because it shows us that love, family and food are things we all understand and share with one another if we just open ourselves up for the experience. This book is a love story between Linh and Bao as they try to bring their families together, but it is also a love story to Vietnamese culture as a whole and I am so grateful to have found this.

Overall Recommendation:

Not only is this a cute Own-voices rom-com, A Pho Love Story combines rich cultural background and Vietnamese cuisine that gives this book its uniqueness and heart. Beyond just the Romeo and Juliet forbidden love trope, this story tackles finding and fighting for your dreams and looks at the immigrant experience with empathy and love. I saw myself in here, and I saw my parents in here.Whether you are new to the Asian culture or not, this book can’t be more timely in the wake of racial tensions in the world. I recommend you open this with an open heart – and a full stomach unless you want to be watering over the food half the time.


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