The book in three sentences: As sisters Van and Linny grew up, they also grew apart. To take care of their father, they must learn to reconcile their differences. Short Girls is as much a novel about complicated familial relationships as it is about the immigrant family experience.

Rating:  Travel companion

Long story long (no spoilers): Short Girls is a unique story about the challenges of growing up as a first-generation Vietnamese-American in the United States. Although the pacing is slow and the characters are not particularly likable, I enjoyed the book because I saw some of my childhood and my friends’ childhoods reflected in this novel.

The story is told through both Van and Linny’s perspectives, each chapter alternating between the two sisters. The more you read, the more you begin to develop a fuller understanding– a more complete picture– of what is going on in their family. I liked this narrative technique because both characters have an opportunity to speak or stand up for themselves, and also offer an outsider’s view of the other.

As the title implies, Van and Linny are short girls. Their father is overly obsessed by this, and when they were young would constantly remind them that there were plenty of famous short people and if they worked hard to prove themselves, they could be well-off too. It doesn’t take long to work out that the sisters’ lack of height is a proxy for their lack of whiteness. Van herself makes the connection when she comments that being Vietnamese in Michigan is like being short in a room full of tall people.

Their father’s obsession with their height then starts to make sense: he believes that although Van and Linny are short (i.e., not white), if they work hard they can make something of themselves. However, Van comments that she feels like “she had been standing on tiptoes her whole life” (183). This idea– that one can overcome systemic discrimination by virtue of trying harder– is extremely dangerous. Not only does it put the burden on marginalized people to do more with fewer resources, but it doesn’t help fix a broken and unjust system. And to be clear, being short is not the problem; it’s being short in a world designed for taller people that is the problem.

Van then highlights another injustice: that she constantly feels like she’s “on display”. Blending in is a privilege. Being able to assimilate into your surroundings, being indiscernible from those around you, seeing yourself reflected in classrooms, in the government, on television, in the books you read, is absolutely a privilege.

Ultimately, the social commentary is what makes this novel interesting. It asks you to reflect on immigrant experiences– a worthwhile exercise, especially if your family has been living in this country for several generations– and challenge the romanticized and false narrative that the “American Dream” exists and is attainable for anyone who wants it badly enough.