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.
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Chapter 1: Oanh Duong 1 Oanh Duong
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.