Despite my partner’s insistence, it has been awhile since I have read a graphic novel. I picked The Best We Can Do up on my own as I am on a bit of a Vietnamese English literature kick.
An intimate and poignant debut graphic novel portraying one family’s journey from war-torn Vietnam, from Thi Bui.
This beautifully illustrated and emotional story is an evocative memoir about the search for a better future and a longing for the past. Exploring the anguish of immigration and the lasting effects that displacement has on a child and her family, Bui documents the story of her family’s daring escape after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s, and the difficulties they faced building new lives for themselves.
At the heart of Bui’s story is a universal struggle: While adjusting to life as a first-time mother, she ultimately discovers what it means to be a parent—the endless sacrifices, the unnoticed gestures, and the depths of unspoken love. Despite how impossible it seems to take on the simultaneous roles of both parent and child, Bui pushes through.
With haunting, poetic writing and breathtaking art, she examines the strength of family, the importance of identity, and the meaning of home. The Best We Could Do brings to life, with words and images, Bui’s journey of understanding and provides inspiration to all those who search for a better future while longing for a simpler past. It is a powerful look at one woman’s life and a war fought decades ago, but her story and the book’s message resonate remarkably today.
The Best We Could Do is a debut graphic memoir that details the author and her family’s life as Vietnamese “boat people” who fled Vietnam after U.S. forces left, leaving South Vietnam to lose the war. The memoir highlights familial relationships, the struggle of displacement, and intergenerational trauma.
Thi Bui approaches the memoir as she is trying to connect with her mother as Bui is on the verge of becoming a mother herself. While this is presented as the context for the book, it really only acts as endcaps to the main narrative, which centers on her family’s history in Vietnam, escape to a refugee camp, and settlement in America.
Often when books have two distinct timelines or narrators, one stands out more than the other. This is also true of The Best That We Could Do. Bui begins and ends the book with her own story of child birth and parenting. Honestly, this was the portion of the story that brought down my rating of the overall book. These snippets felt unconnected to the rest of the book and did not interest me. I have no doubt that Bui intended to provide readers with the lens through which she saw her parents and their familial journey. But the storyline needed to be stronger to bridge her personal, more recent storyline to that of her family’s that begins in Vietnam.
On the other hand, my attention was rapt once Bui went back to her family’s time in Vietnam. I appreciated that their story did not center on the war. Bui painted a portrait of life in Vietnam during its French colonization. She also presented readers with her parent’s story. Considering Bui’s age at the time her family left Vietnam, this was a smart decision and really allowed readers to understand what life was like before, during, and after the war. Furthermore, Bui was able to examine the lasting effects of war and seeking refuge on her parents and grandparents.
While her family’s journey was fascinating, Bui’s storytelling felt detached and almost clinical. I thought the book lacked both emotion and detail. Although I was able to follow it in its entirety, I think those who are unfamiliar with Vietnamese history may find that the narrative jumps around a bit too much.
I always consider the art when I am reviewing a graphic novel. I was not a particular fan of Bui’s style. I did find it easy to read and understand. But the drawings still seemed like sketches rather than a finished product. In addition, I heavily prefer panels to be in full color. For individuals like me who have trouble recognizing faces and facial differences, it is crucial that different characters are distinguishable and color definitely aids that. However, The Best We Could Do was rather monochromatic, despite its beautiful cover.
Overall, The Best We Could Do was a mixed reading experience for me. I found the primary narrative fascinating and informative. Sadly, other portions of the book decreased my overall enjoyment. I still recommend the novel. It is a very accessible way to dip your toe into stories of the Vietnamese diaspora.
The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir
Nonfiction – Memoir;
March 7, 2017
National Book Critics Circle Finalist
American Library Association 2018 Notable Books Selection