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A complex immigrant family story lies beneath the breezy veneer of 'Sunshine Nails'

<em>Sunshine Nails</em> by Mai Nguyen
Atria Books
Sunshine Nails by Mai Nguyen

In 1983, Tuyet and Xuan Tran — the couple at the heart of Mai Nguyen's debut novel Sunshine Nails — arrived in Canada as refugees from Vietnam. Settling in Toronto, they worked a series of jobs until they managed to open their own business, the nail salon of the book's title.

They use their English names, Debbie and Phil (chosen for Debbie Harry and Phil Collins), "to make it easier on their customers." Their children, Jessica and Dustin, grew up with the salon as a kind of younger sibling that needed their parents' time, care and attention.

But in 2016, when Sunshine Nails begins, the salon isn't doing as well as it used to, and the Junction, a real Toronto neighborhood where much of the novel takes place, is gentrifying fast.

Readers meet the Trans on the day that Jessica returns home after living in Los Angeles for eight years. In all that time, Jessica never came to visit, and her parents never felt they had the time to fly out to California.

No wonder, then, that Jessica is especially stressed as she gets closer and closer to her childhood home. Not only is she seeing her parents for the first time in years, but she's doing so in disgrace: She's newly single after finding her fiancé cheating on her in the kitchen she just had remodeled, and she's been fired from her casting job for an accident involving a celebrity's nose.

On her first night back, Phil asks Jessica whether she wants to work at Sunshine Nails. She doesn't have a job anyway, and she could join her cousin, Thuy, who has emigrated recently from Vietnam and has been working at the salon.

But Jessica unequivocally refuses: "To her, hunching over the hands and feet of strangers was the type of work relegated to immigrants who had scant education and abysmal English — people who saw the service industry as their only ticket to financial salvation. No offense to them, but she was above that."

The novel's project is, in many ways, to complicate this classist, often xenophobic idea that even Jessica herself, raised by immigrant parents, has come to believe. Of course, she ends up working for Sunshine Nails, and becomes competitive with Take Ten, the trendy chain salon opening across the street, but the high jinks that ensue are best left for the reader to discover.

Suffice it to say that Jessica isn't the only one who undergoes a great deal of change through the course of the briskly paced book. Dustin, her brother, has been working for the same startup for five years, and even though he was one of the company's earliest hires, he's never gotten a raise. When he starts getting to know Mackenzie, a new coworker he has a crush on, Dustin's loyalty to and perception of his job begins to change as well.

Each of the characters in the novel grapples with work, money and family in different ways, and the generational and cultural differences between them shape their reactions to both joys and hardships.

One striking example early in the book is when Jessica comes home from a job interview and tells her mother that the first question she was asked was "Where are you from?" This fraught question has long been considered a racist microaggression, which is clearly how Jessica experiences it.

But Debbie hears it as a sign of the interviewer's interest in Jessica — which is likely because Debbie has a different relationship to the question altogether: "She loved it when her customers asked her where she was from. Any chance she got to talk about how Saigon thrummed with feverish energy and how you could make a friend just about anywhere filled her with immense pride. Why that question filled her children with palpable discomfort never made any sense to Debbie."

Debbie, of course, is from Vietnam, but Jessica is from Canada, her parents' homeland known to her only through their stories and those of their community.

Different chapters focus on different characters — Debbie, Phil, Jessica, Dustin and Thuy — and as is often the case with ensemble casts, readers will favor and identify with some family members more than others.

For me, those characters were Debbie and Phil, who felt like the most lovingly drawn and complex. Their relationship is beautifully wrought, Nguyen depicting the ways they give each other pleasure as well as pain, laughter as well as disappointment and anger. Married for nearly 40 years, Debbie and Phil know each other inside out, yet surprise each other, too, especially when it comes to keeping their business afloat in the face of competition from the new salon and the neighborhood's rising rents.

Sunshine Nails has been marketed as lighthearted, and it is in many ways — it's funny, some events get resolved too easily to be strictly realistic, and it's a gratifyingly speedy read. But beneath the dust jacket's bright yellows, purples and pinks is a novel of character studies that simmers with questions about work, class, generational divides and the expectations facing refugees making new homes in their asylums.

Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, book critic, and author of the novel All My Mother's Lovers.

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Ilana Masad