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The Fortunes of Jaded Women
Table of Contents
About The Book
A WASHINGTON POST BEST FEEL-GOOD BOOK OF THE YEAR
For fans of Amy Tan, KJ Dell’Antonia, and Kevin Kwan, this “sharp, smart, and gloriously extra” (Nancy Jooyoun Kim, author of The Last Story of Mina Lee) debut celebrates a family of estranged Vietnamese women who experiences mishaps and unexpected joy after a psychic makes a startling prediction about their lives.
Everyone in Orange County’s Little Saigon knew that the Duong sisters were cursed.
It started with their ancestor, Oanh, who dared to leave her marriage for true love—so a fearsome Vietnamese witch cursed Oanh and her descendants so that they would never find love or happiness, and the Duong women would give birth to daughters, never sons.
Oanh’s current descendant Mai Nguyen knows this curse well. She’s divorced, and after an explosive disagreement a decade ago, she’s estranged from her younger sisters, Minh Pham (the middle and the mediator) and Khuyen Lam (the youngest who swears she just runs humble coffee shops and nail salons, not Little Saigon’s underground). Though Mai’s three adult daughters, Priscilla, Thuy, and Thao, are successful in their careers (one of them is John Cho’s dermatologist!), the same can’t be said for their love lives. Mai is convinced they might drive her to an early grave.
Desperate for guidance, she consults Auntie Hua, her trusted psychic in Hawaii, who delivers an unexpected prediction: this year, her family will witness a marriage, a funeral, and the birth of a son. This prophecy will reunite estranged mothers, daughters, aunts, and cousins—for better or for worse.
A multi-narrative novel brimming with levity and candor, The Fortunes of Jaded Women is about mourning, meddling, celebrating, and healing together as a family. It shows how Vietnamese women emerge victorious, even if the world is against them.
EVERYONE IN ORANGE COUNTY’S Little Saigon knew the Duong sisters were cursed.
They heard that the curse began in Vietnam when Oanh Duong’s ex-mother-in-law, Lan Hoàng, had gone north to visit the reclusive witch who lived in Sa Pa, at the foot of the Hoàng Liên Son mountains. The trip across the volatile terrain was treacherous; only truly diabolical souls who wanted to inflict generational curses on others would be able to survive. Like all slighted Vietnamese women, Lan Hoàng wished for the type of scarring that would make her wanton daughter-in-law and all her future kin ostracized forever. She just didn’t know what that would look like.
The night Lan arrived at the quiet village, she was exhausted. The fickle weather had brought an onslaught of all four seasons within a few days, and she hadn’t been as prepared as she thought. The rustling wind had been her enemy one day, and her friend the next. Thankfully, her hired guide had enough shearling to keep her warm for the final leg of her travels. She begged him to take her to see the witch immediately. The more time wasted, the closer Oanh would be to conceiving a child.
The guide dropped Lan off in front of the tiny, all-white stone home at the foot of the mountains, and wished her luck, though he wasn’t sure if he meant it. The old man had taken many desperate women—mothers, daughters, and sisters—across the country to visit the witch, but he’d never once stepped foot inside. He knew better than to interrupt the flow of the universe. Only women were brave enough to tempt fate like that.
Like every other French colonial home that lined the dirt road, the house had stone pillars that held up the front, like Atlas holding up the weight of the world. Wild ivy wrapped all the way around them, mirroring hands that held a tight grip on all lost souls who entered. Though the exterior appeared welcoming, the inside looked as if light had never been able to find its way in, no matter how hard it tried.
Lan shivered, suddenly feeling nervous for the first time in her journey. She’d dreamt about this moment for months, and now that she was finally here, she was afraid. Afraid of what she would become if she went through with it. Would she still have a soul after? As she second-guessed her decision, the dilapidated wooden front door squeaked open, expelling a sinful pheromone, tempting Lan inside. The witch’s face peeked out from the shadows, and she pushed the door further ajar and beckoned her. The woman was more petite than imagined, and she had a strangeness about her that Lan couldn’t place. Though quite angular with her face structure, uncommon for Vietnamese people, the witch’s beauty was enhanced by her dark hair that had grown wild every which way. Lan couldn’t discern her age; every time she tried to guess, she felt like her eyes were deceiving her.
“You’re late.” The witch’s voice had traces of irritation, but her impish eyes worried Lan the most. She couldn’t read the intent behind them, but she could sense the greed, and it exacerbated her nerves. “Hurry up, you’re letting the heat out.” Lan didn’t ask her how she knew she was coming. She didn’t want to know more than she should because she was afraid of ghosts and spirits following her home. She was already testing the universe’s patience by being there.
Lan timidly entered the house and followed the woman to the back room. Her nose crinkled at the pungent smell that cloaked the room. She spotted a man in the corner, his face hidden behind shadows and a cap. His age was also amorphous. He was busy pounding a gelatinous substance in his mortar. Behind him, stacked glass jars full of questionable liquids and dry herbs teetered back and forth, desperately trying to stay in rhythm with one another to avoid toppling over. He locked eyes with Lan as she passed him by. The bulbous veins on his hands came dangerously close to revealing his real age. She gulped down the bile in her throat, regret once again bubbling up.
“Snake heart,” the witch said, as if responding to Lan’s thoughts. “Makes men stronger. To produce more sons.”
The witch hurried Lan along, past the man, into the windowless back room, and motioned for her to sit on the floor pillows. She took her own place across the circular wooden table, heated up water, and set out some cups. The flimsy table between them was the only thing keeping the gates of hell from opening on Lan, and she prayed that the table would hold the barrier, just a little while longer.
“Why have you come?” the witch asked as she poured tea leaves into a cup, and gently drizzled hot water onto the leaves, allowing the aromatics to open up first.
“My daughter-in-law,” Lan said. “She has betrayed her duties. She left my oldest son, her husband, for another man. A Cambodian man no less. Claims that she’s in love. Foolish girl.” Lan uttered tut-tuts of heavy disapproval.
“You seek revenge then?”
“Well, no—” Lan stammered, unsure how to say it out loud. “I don’t want her dead—”
“There are plights worse than death.”
“Like what?” she asked nervously.
“Well, malaise can kill you slowly,” the witch said. She closed her eyes and allowed the currents to take over her body, so she could see all that was past, present, and what was to come. “Your daughter-in-law is pregnant.”
“I knew it. That whore. No wonder she left so quickly,” Lan seethed through her teeth. Suddenly, her nerves were gone, and she could only see her desire to see Oanh’s blood splattered all over this earth. She looked down at her own hands, saw what she was capable of, and it no longer terrified her. “I want her cursed, Auntie. Her and her bastard child.”
“It’s a boy,” the witch said, her eyes still closed. “She carries a son inside of her.”
“That should have been my grandson,” Lan cried out. “That wench doesn’t deserve to have love and produce a firstborn son. Vietnamese women aren’t allowed to have both.”
“Then tell me what it is that you want,” the witch said slyly, a hint of wickedness in her tone. “Believe it or not, I can’t read minds.”
“I curse Oanh Duong to wander the afterlife alone. Unable to visit her children when she passes. And I curse all her children’s children, and all those who follow, to never know love and marry poorly. And as a result, their husbands won’t invite Oanh to visit her ancestral altar,” Lan said without hesitation.
“I curse her and all the women in her family to never be able to come home.”
The witch opened her eyes quickly and stared deep into Lan’s as she soaked in her cruel desires. The ivy that wrapped around the outside pillars tightened its grip even further. They both acknowledged the weight of the curse and the significance behind it: Daughters were unable to invite their ancestors into the house without their husbands’ permission. And bad husbands only meant that ancestors would be forever blocked from entering.
“Then I curse Oanh Duong to only have daughters,” the witch said in a controlled voice. “Those daughters will grow into women, and when those women become mothers, they will only bear daughters. May each daughter carry the weight of their mothers’ sins and never escape the cycle.”
“Thank you, Auntie,” Lan whispered, fearful, yet relieved. She felt powerful in the moment, as if she had transcended the Buddha. Her vindictiveness scared her, but there was no going back now. “What will happen to the son growing inside of her now?”
“Like I said, there are things worse than death.”
A few months later, Oanh Duong suffered a miscarriage. She mourned the loss of what could have been, especially when she realized that she’d been carrying a son. Grief consumed her, but the yearning for motherhood called to her, so the new lovers tried again. This time she was fortunate to carry the baby to term. But when the midwife passed her newborn into Oanh’s arms, she had a look of pity on her face.
“You have a beautiful daughter,” the midwife said. “She has your eyes.”
At first, Oanh tried to mask her disappointment. Not a son. But when she looked into the eyes of her daughter, a new emotion surged through her. Her daughter was made entirely in her image. It was the strangest feeling. Staring down at her tiny face, Oanh was reminded of the possibilities and hardships that came with a face like that. Ten little fingers, ten toes, a mop of black hair. And those eyes! So earnest and adventurous, willing to walk barefoot for miles and miles, all for love. Her husband, however, was vocal in his disappointment. His spine stiffened, and there was a hesitation before he finally agreed to hold his daughter in his arms. Oanh told him not to worry. She promised that they’d try again for a son, and that she’d keep going until she produced him an heir.
As the midwife eavesdropped on their conversation, her back turned to them, she knew that Oanh would never conceive a son. But she didn’t have the heart to tell her. The midwife had seen curses like this manifest time and time again. Whenever miscarriages for sons happened, followed by the delivery of a firstborn daughter, a witch’s work was at play. No shaman, monk, or traveling priest from the Philippines would be able to undo the spell inflicted on Oanh’s lineage. All she could do was prepare herself for the type of generational heartbreak that came with daughters because after she passed on, she may never be able to go home.
Because there was nothing wrong with having Vietnamese daughters. It was how the world treated them that turned it into a curse.
Reading Group Guide
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Everyone in Orange County’s Little Saigon knew that the Dương sisters were cursed.
It started with their ancestor Oanh, who dared to leave her marriage for true love. So a fearsome Vietnamese witch cursed Oanh and her descendants so that they would never find love or happiness, and the Dương women would give birth to daughters, never sons.
Oanh’s current descendant Mai Nguyễn knows this curse well. She’s divorced, and after an explosive disagreement a decade ago, she’s estranged from her younger sisters, Minh Phạm (the middle and the mediator) and Khuyến Lâm (the youngest, who swears she just runs humble coffee shops and nail salons, not Little Saigon’s underground). Though Mai’s three adult daughters, Priscilla, Thủy, and Thảo, are successful in their careers—one of them is John Cho’s dermatologist!—the same can’t be said for their love lives. Mai is convinced they might drive her to an early grave.
Desperate for guidance, she consults Auntie Hứa, her trusted psychic in Hawaii, who delivers an unexpected prediction: this year, her family will witness a marriage, a funeral, and the birth of a son. This prophecy will reunite estranged mothers, daughters, aunts, and cousins—for better or for worse.
A multinarrative novel brimming with levity and candor, The Fortunes of Jaded Women is about mourning, meddling, celebrating, and healing together as a family. It shows how Vietnamese women emerge victorious, even if the world is against them.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The story starts with the beginnings of a curse and predictions from a psychic—how do both the curse and psychic set up the rest of the story?
2. Discuss the similarities and differences between each generation of women. Are any of the daughters like their mothers?
3. Thảo references her “Asian-daughter guilt” (page 74), when talking about being away from home for as long as she has. Do you think the idea of mother/daughter guilt is a universal concept?
4. Why was jade such an important symbol to the family, specifically through jewelry?
5. Although they all have various frustrations with one another, the Dương sisters and their daughters clearly love each other. What are some ways they demonstrate their affection, albeit in perhaps untraditional manner?
6. Setting plays an important part in the novel. What feelings are invoked when in Seattle, Saigon, or Orange County? Discuss how the different neighborhoods and houses play a pivotal role in the characters’ lives.
7. There are many funny scenes in the novel, in addition to its humorous tone. Which moments made you laugh, and how did they make you feel about the characters?
8. Mark, Andy, Daniel, Anh and even Dr. Hak all have their roles to play as the men in the lives of the Dương sisters. Discuss how these relationships are all woven together and the significance of each of these characters.
9. “Pass this necklace on to your oldest daughter, and when your oldest daughter is of age, the necklace will help her bear the children she wants. She will continue passing down the necklace, throughout the generations, and the necklace will always reveal their real desires in their children” (page 240). Why was this revelation important? How does it change everything the sisters have ever believed about their family?
10. Discuss how the novel is organized and broken into five parts—"The Predictions,” “The Funeral,” “The Pregnancy,” “The Wedding,” and “The Grandson.”
11. Each character brings something different to the story—did you relate to any of them? If so, please explain who and why.
12. When the novel ends, we see Priscilla go see the psychic to learn about her daughter. Given that she is someone who “always relied on numbers as the source of truth in the universe” (page 19), why do you think she continues this tradition?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. So much of the story of the Dương sisters centers around the family curse that has been passed down from generation to generation. Are there any curses or folklore tales in your family (that you know of)? If you feel comfortable, consider asking the source of the story to tell it to you again. Perhaps you will find new details emerge that you couldn’t have known as a child.
2. Little Saigon neighborhoods are all across the United States. See if there is one in your area to explore, or find a Vietnamese restaurant in your area and try the cuisine!
3. To learn more about Carolyn Huynh, read reviews of The Fortunes of Jaded Women, and learn about her events, visit Carolyn’s official site at www.carolynkhuynh.com.
A Conversation with Carolyn Huynh
Q: The Fortunes of Jaded Women is both heartfelt and laugh-out-loud hilarious. Did you set out to write a funny novel, or did the characters you created inform its tone?
A: I’ve always thought Vietnamese people—especially Vietnamese mothers—are unintentionally funny. Most of the lines that came from the three mothers in the book are real lines my mother has said in real life. My mother believes in cash, is deathly afraid of taxes, and often told me growing up that flip-flops cause cancer. (Don’t ask me to explain anything.) I created my characters to be unintentionally funny, because I knew they were being serious (which only makes it funnier!).
Q: Mother-daughter relationships and those between sisters are evergreen topics in literature. What dynamics in this relationship were you interested in exploring?
A: I’m fascinated with misunderstandings, miscommunications, and misbehaving women—and mother-daughter relationships are ripe with those. Especially when it comes to saying “I’m sorry” and “I love you” between a mother and daughter. The lengths we go to to avoid those two little phrases when all we want to do is shout them from a mountain is something so universal, it will never stop being written about.
Q: You’ve spoken about how the psychic, Auntie Hứa, is based on a real person. Tell us about your inspiration for the novel and how this person played a part in that.
A: The psychic is definitely a tall tale within the Vietnamese community—everyone knows who she is! I saw this woman myself five years ago, and it has haunted me ever since. I grew up with my mother going to our family fortune-teller for everything and I used to resent her for doing it, but when I grew up, I understood the intention behind why she did it. Having this psychic as the opening was so integral to the story because I wanted to highlight the lengths a mother would go to to try to protect their children from the unknowns—even if the psychic is probably wrong.
Q: Was there a character that was your favorite to write about? If so, why?
A: Rosie and Christine! They are my Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. I’m obsessed with the Gen Z ABG (Asian Baby Girl) generation, and I wanted to write about two characters who stood the most chance of being able to heal from generational trauma. Because if they choose to have children of their own one day, the probability that those children will be able to end the cycle is high.
Q: What novels were you drawn to growing up?
A: I’m proud to say I consumed a lot of comic books, manga, and fanfiction as a child, and as a result addiction for commercial fiction and Korean dramas has manifested as an adult.
Q: Why was it important to you to set the novel primarily in Orange County, CA?
A: Aside from Orange County being where I was born and raised, I wanted to write about it in a way that actually reflects the diverse population. It always surprised me how one-note its depiction in the media is. The Little Saigon area is a reflection of the resiliency of Vietnamese people. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was Little Saigon. The Vietnamese survived twice: once from the war, and again resettling in a new country. What better way to honor that resiliency than by setting the book in the biggest Vietnamese enclave outside of Vietnam itself?
Q: As a writer, what do you hope readers take away from your novel?
A: I’m the least positive person alive, so even I’m surprised I wrote a novel that has so much levity and healing. Even though this is a very Vietnamese American story, I wanted readers to be swept away with that warm, fuzzy feeling of hopefulness. In order to love, you have to have hope. Hope that things will get better (which they will). This is now your reminder to call the mother-figure in your life and tell them you’re sorry and that you love them.
Q: Do you have a next project in mind? And, if so, what is it?
A: My heart refuses to stop writing about unhinged family dynamics, the Vietnamese diaspora, and messy women who never learn from their mistakes. My next project centers around Houston’s Little Saigon and the Trần family. It’s about four sisters who have been pitted against each other by their eccentric, self-made father to win back their inheritance. They just have to get through the first-born son, the second wife and her team of shark lawyers, oh, and do it all before their father passes. Think of it as House of Ho meets Succession. It’s another bighearted story about rediscovering one’s roots, familial legacy, and finding one’s place in a divided country.
Why We Love It
“For the longest time, I didn’t see Vietnamese American women like me in fiction. We were background characters, dead bodies, docile servants, fetishized fantasies, or suffering individuals traumatized by constant war. I always thought, There’s so much more to our lives. There’s so much to celebrate. Vietnamese women are joyful, loud, stubborn, angry, funny, loving. We are everything. Carolyn Huynh’s big-hearted debut, The Fortunes of Jaded Women, is absolute proof. It follows various Vietnamese women’s disparate lives, which intersect after a powerful psychic makes a startling prediction about their family’s fate and happiness. Layered with laugh-out-loud humor, some heartbreak, and healing, this vibrant novel is a life-affirming love letter to women everywhere.”
—Loan L., Editor, on The Fortunes of Jaded Women
- Publisher: Atria Books (September 6, 2022)
- Length: 272 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982188733
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Raves and Reviews
"A war bubbles at the core of The Fortunes of Jaded Women, but perhaps not the one you’d expect. Rather than retreading the conflict that has been the focus of most Vietnam-centric literature for the past 70 years, Vietnamese American author Carolyn Huynh offers up a refreshingly buoyant and irreverent debut novel about a fiery group of estranged mothers and daughters. . . . Fantastical elements and an abundance of sisterly squabbles and scandals keep things juicy and bring plenty of laughs, but the characters are the real stars of the show. Each woman is joyfully rendered and fully developed, offering a welcome contrast to cliched depictions of meek and docile Asian women, and a powerful subversion of monolithic depictions of a people who have for too long been solely defined by tragedy. The Duong women have fire in their bellies, desire in their hearts and the grit needed to overcome any obstacle. The Fortunes of Jaded Women will certainly appeal to fans of over-the-top excess à la Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians, but readers who love rich explorations of thorny mother-daughter relationships and the ways we weather."
– Stephenie Harrison, BookPage (starred review)
“Huynh pulls off an admirable portrait of well-meaning mothers and their children. . . . Worth checking out.”
– Publishers Weekly
“You can always count me in for a story about generations of cursed women, but I was surprised—and thoroughly delighted—to discover how much I would laugh out loud at the exploits of these mothers, daughters, and sisters. Carolyn Huynh’s The Fortunes of Jaded Women is a terrific debut. I’m eager to read more from her.”
– Lisa See, the New York Times bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane
"Huynh's debut novel explores the dynamics of a stubborn Vietnamese American family with humor and tenderness, ultimately showing how the women slowly find healing, love, and happiness together."
“Written with crackling humor and a shrewd, intimate understanding of Vietnamese American family life, the book is full of tart, broad comedy and farcical setups. . . . A funny, sharp, and insightful look at family bonds and the effects of tradition on modern life. . . .You will laugh along with the Duongs, but you’ll also find yourself cheering for their reconciliation.”
– Kirkus Reviews
“Sharp, smart, and gloriously extra, The Fortunes of Jaded Women pays homage to the counterfeit-Louis-Vuitton queens of the Vietnamese diaspora and West Coast witches everywhere. I laughed out loud at the familiar stubbornness, the high- and low-stakes cutthroatedness of these complex and lovable mothers and daughters."
– Nancy Jooyoun Kim, the New York Times bestselling author of The Last Story of Mina Lee
"Clever, hilarious, and deliciously dramatic. In this knockout debut, Huynh weaves a tangled, multigenerational story between fierce, stubborn Vietnamese mothers and their estranged daughters that is equally wild and heartfelt. It beautifully captures how far mothers would go to create a better life for their daughters and reconnect with them when their efforts go awry. Unlike their fake designer purses, this book is the real deal."
– Julie Tieu, author of The Donut Trap
"Mixing superstition, family drama, and a cast of unforgettable characters, Carolyn Huynh works magic in her debut. The Fortunes of Jaded Women is nothing short of a modern Shakespearean comedy of errors that perfectly depicts the intricate relationship between parents and their children. I can't wait for the world to meet the Duong family!"
– Eric Nguyen, author of Things We Lost to the Water
"Superstition, sibling rivalry, well-meaning mothers who meddle in the lives of their daughters—who then grow up to be well-meaning mothers who meddle in the lives of their daughters. The Fortunes of Jaded Women pulls off the magic trick of being a heartfelt, multi-generational epic as well as a fast-paced, hilarious romp. It is your good fortune to have this novel in your hands."
– Camille Perri, acclaimed author of The Assistants and When Katie Met Cassidy
"A delightful, drama-filled page turner, The Fortunes of Jaded Women tosses readers into the deep end of stubborn, ambitious Vietnamese women and their desire to create a better life for their daughters. Start swimming readers because you're in for an unforgettable lap around the complex world of Vietnamese Americans."
– Thien-Kim Lam, author of Happy Endings
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