Review: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

Title: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous
Author: Ocean Vuong
Publisher: Penguin Press
Rating: 3/5 Stars
Hardcover, 246 Pages
Published June 2019


Summary: On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family's history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one's own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

I had heard a lot of great things about this book throughout the last few months, but it wasn’t until our campus book club selected it as our read for this semester that I actually got a chance to sit down and read it. And let me tell you, I’m so glad that I did, because I ended up being exposed to such a beautiful story that I wasn’t expecting, and I just have so many great things to say about it. So without further ado, let’s get into my review!

As the summary explains, ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS is, in its entirety, a letter from Ocean Vuong to his mother, an immigrant woman from Vietnam who can’t read. So in this story, he speaks to her about several things, such as his childhood, his upbringing, Vietnam, his sexuality, and the many bouts of sadness and trauma that he endured as a child growing into young adulthood. And throughout it all, there is this aching sense of both sadness AND hope – because how do you say all of these raw, emotional things to someone who will most likely never read them? Reading this book was truly such a powerful experience, and I can only imagine the kind of power that Ocean Vuong must have felt while writing it.

I really enjoyed reading this book. I thought that the writing style was absolutely gorgeous, in a way that I haven’t really seen in many of the other books that I’ve read before. As someone who reads primarily YA fiction – and romantic comedies, at that – I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened this book, or if I was even going to like it. But I ended up really loving all of the gorgeous prose, and the raw, honest, open, and even sometimes painful way that Vuong tackled particularly tough or emotional topics. This book is, at its core, a letter to his mother. Someone who is supposed to understand him more than anyone else, but who probably won’t even get the chance to read this letter (and I do remember seeing that she has unfortunately since passed away). So there’s just this surreal, super emotional quality to this book when you know that you’re witnessing someone’s private memories, pains, and joys – as an outside observer who is reading a letter that was not really meant for you in the first place.

Something else that I really enjoyed about this book was the fact that the timeline wasn’t linear. When I first started reading, that was definitely something that was a little bit confusing and took a little bit of time to get used to, but then after I really started to fall into the story and get used to it, I fell in love with the way that the story jumped around and spoke about different parts in Vuong’s life. Because that’s the way memory really is – it isn’t linear. We don’t necessarily always remember things in order. So this book, and the honest and jagged way that its written, really helps the reader fall into the experience of being in Vuong’s letter, and actually being able to place themselves in his memories.

Overall, I thought that ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS was such a gorgeous (ha, no pun intended) , calming book that I really fell into, as both a reader and a writer. It’s safe to say that I can absolutely see why so many people have been saying such incredible things about this book, and I know that I’m about to become one of them as well. Less than 250 pages, this book is a quick but deep, emotional, raw story that you can find yourself getting hooked on. There is an honest, painful,  yet hopeful history here that I’m glad I got a chance to explore. I’m incredibly glad that I was given the opportunity to read ON EARTH WE’RE BRIEFLY GORGEOUS with students on my campus this semester, and I hope that you all take the chance to read this incredible book as well.



 

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