Friday, March 19, 2010

Review: The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli

Helen picked her way back home using the less traveled streets and alleys, avoiding the larger thoroughfares such as Nguyen Hue, where trouble was likely. When she first came to Saigon, full of the country's history from books, it had struck her out little any of the Americans knew or cared about the country, how they traveled the same streets day after day - Nguyen Huge, Hai Ba Trung, Le Loi - with no idea that these were the names of Vietnamese war heroes who rose up against foreign invaders. That was the experience of Vietnam: things in plain view, their meaning visible only to the initiated
. [pg 7]

The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
St. Martin's Press, April 2010
Fiction; 400 pgs

I watched the film The Hurt Locker recently. I have had difficulty putting my thoughts onto paper about it and so you haven't seen a review. One thing in particular that stood out for me, however, was the scene where Staff Sergeant James is grocery shopping, followed by a scene of him trying to talk to his wife about his experiences in the Iraq War as she prepares a meal. These are very revealing scenes. The soldier goes from intense and life threatening situations in Iraq to the every day monotony of life back home. His wife is not able to understand what he has been through, everything he has seen.

The violence and shared horrors, the adrenalin rush, the camaraderie and strong bonds that form between the soldiers, and the sense of duty and honor . . . War can change a person. It can make adjusting to home life upon return difficult. It is not uncommon for soldiers to return to battle even when they don't have to. Some feel most comfortable there in a way many of us who haven't experienced it can't even begin to understand. I thought of this as I read The Lotus Eaters. A different war, a different time period. A novel about photojournalists rather than a movie about soldiers. The pull of war, of danger, seduces some almost like a drug. It makes the title of Tatjana Soli's novel all the more fitting.

I was drawn to Soli's The Lotus Eaters because of the setting. The novel is set in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It is the story of an American female photojournalist, Helen Adams, who is set on following in her father and brother's footsteps, wanting to know how her brother died and to experience some of what he must have as a soldier in the Vietnam War. It is also the story of Linh, a Vietnamese man who has lost everything and who is doing what he can to survive. And then there is Sam Darrow, an American photojournalist whose entire life is wrapped up in shooting wars.

The novel opens as Helen is making her way home to her apartment in Saigon where Linh, bedridden and in need of medical care, is waiting. The Americans are fleeing the city as the Communists take over, the final sign of a war lost. Helen struggles with whether to leave with Linh or stay to see the changeover first hand, capturing it on film. Her decision made, the novel, and her thoughts, shift to the past and the reader is taken to the moment she first arrived in Saigon and from there her story and that of Linh's and Darrow's unfold.

I fell in love with this novel from the very first word. My biggest regret is that I read the novel without my reading journal handy and so my notes are few, and I don't have a record of the many quotations that especially moved me. The author's writing is beautiful. There was a melancholy and underlying tension about it which helped to create the tone of the novel. None of the characters in the novel are perfect, each one flawed and multi-faceted. They are tormented but driven, eager but at times reluctant.

Helen changes quite a bit during her time in Vietnam. She arrives as a naive young woman, eager to make a name for herself and prove she can hold her own in a man's world. She has her work cut out for her and, even at her most fearful, she is courageous. As the novel progresses, Helen grows stronger and wiser but there is a recklessness there too, much like that of veteran photographer, Darrow, who finds comfort and meaning in war. He sees something in Helen, a hint himself in his younger years, but also someone who may finally be his match.

Linh's story intrigued me. He is Darrow's assistant and proves to be an invaluable companion. He is the biggest mystery of all throughout the novel, but as his personal story unfolds, I was even more drawn to him, and I couldn't help but wish I had known him in real life.

Through the author's words and the characters' eyes, I could understand their love/hate relationship with Vietnam. It is a beautiful country. The Vietnamese people were tenacious and adaptable. They had to be given the circumstances of the country's history. The author's knowledge and interest in Vietnam shined through on every page. She included a bibliography at the end of the book for those interested in reading more about the country. While her story is fiction, there is truth woven in. Soli did not take sides but presented a realistic and complicated picture of events in Vietnam at the time.

The Lotus Eaters is beautiful, dark, and thought provoking. War is cruel and Soli does not hold back from sharing the ugly side of it. Within it too, however, are sparks of humanity and compassion. The author does not leave that out either. In fact, it is often those moments, that help Helen through the darker moments. The Lotus Eaters is an amazing novel: a love story just as much as it is about the Vietnam War and the impact war can have on those touched by it. After having just finished it, I am still hesitant to pick up another book, still caught in its spell.

Rating: * (Outstanding)
Challenge Commitment Fulfilled: War Through the Generations: Vietnam War Challenge

You can learn more about Tatjana Soli and her book on the author's website. Be sure and check the TLC Book Tours website as well.

Many thanks to the TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to be a part of this book tour. Book for review provided by the publisher.

Tatjana Soli's TLC Tour Stops:

Thursday, March 18th: Book Club Classics!

Monday, March 22nd: Feminist Review

Tuesday, March 23rd: Reading, Writing, and Retirement

Wednesday, March 24th: Caribousmom

Thursday, March 25th: Word Lily

Friday, March 26th: Bookfoolery and Babble

Monday, March 29th: My Friend Amy

Wednesday, March 31st: Books and Movies

Thursday, April 1st: Lit and Life

Friday, April 2nd: Luxury Reading

Monday, April 5th: Suko’s Notebook

Tuesday, April 6th: One Person’s Journey Through a World of Books

Wednesday, April 7th: Diary of an Eccentric

Thursday, April 8th: Happy Lotus

Friday, April 9th: At Home With Books

Monday, April 12th: Savvy Verse and Wit

Monday, April 13th: A High and Hidden Place

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. Excellent review, Wendy! This sounds like a powerful book! I'll be sure to check out this book the next time I visit the bookstore.

    Hope you have a great weekend ahead! :)

  2. Wendy - I'm intrigue with your review on this book and I'm planning to go buy this book. Not only because your review are great, but because it hit too close to home for me - with Vietnamm setting :) Thanks for review

  3. Even without your reading journal, your review rocks! I am looking forward to reading this book next month. I think it is going to be great for the Vietnam War Reading Challenge. We'll get this post linked up at the war blog soon.

  4. Wow! Great review! I am going to get this one for sure.

  5. Clearly I missed out by not being on the tour for this one! It sounds fascinating, and your review is excellent - even without your reading journal, you tell me so much. This is hitting the Wishlist - thanks, Wendy!

  6. I've just added this to my TBR on Goodreads. While I have read much non-fiction about Vietnam/Vietnam War, I have read nothing from the fiction world. This sounds like a stunning novel and I am sure I would enjoy it.

  7. I thought The Hurt Locker an excellent film and am still pondering some of the points it made.

    I'm adding The Lotus Eater to my list. Great review!

  8. Wow, fantastic review, Wendy. How can I resist after this? Adding it to my wishlist as I type.

  9. I know so little about Vietnam and the Vietnam war even though it was the war of my childhood. I have heard that it is a very beautiful country. This sounds like a book to keep on my radar. Don't you just love books with bibliographies at the end? Built in reading lists!

  10. Beautiful review! I've got to get my hands on that book now. I just watched The Hurt Locker too and I'm still thinking about it.

  11. Great review Wendy. I've wondered about this book. It sounded good but I wasn't sure. I think I'll add it to my list for the Vietnam challenge.

  12. I skimmed your review since I am still in progress on this one - but I agree so far, it's so amazingly well-written and puts you right there with Helen and Linh.

  13. I wasn't sure about this book when I first read about it but you have convinced me. It's going on to my TBR.

  14. Wendy, that was a truly beautiful review! I am very interested in reading this book after reading your review of it. I have a strange fascination with Vietnam and it's people, and I think that this book would really be a sensational read for me. Thanks for your excellent thoughts on the book, it is going on my wish list right now!

  15. Great review! I like the connection you made between the book and The Hurt Locker.

  16. Hi Wendy, I have to have this book. Thanks for the review!

    I recently bought a book written by a reporter (Oliver Poole) on the war in Iraq, and a couple of other books on war and about soldiers.

    I've also watched THE HURT LOCKER and I hear you. I've also just finished a book I LOVE A MAN IN UNIFORM, a memoir by Lily Burana, and it gives an insight into living a life with a soldier. I love how you make all those connections, Wendy!

  17. Just the beautiful title has me hooked! But if that weren't enough, your review woul definitely convince me to download this one next. Now, I can't wait to read it.

    Did you know that it's really easy to highlight quotes on a Kindle and save them? And that you can easily keep notes as you're reading? I was very skeptical about getting one since I love the feel and smell of books so much but, I've got to tell you, I'm loving it!

    Have a good week!

  18. Since I've got this coming up next, I sort of skimmed over your review, but I'm glad to know that I'm going to know that I'll enjoy it!

  19. I'm currently reading The Lotus Eaters so I skipped the review and just looked at your rating, but yay! I'm glad you gave this 5paws!! I am loving the writing.

  20. Melody - Thank you. I was really impressed with this novel and I look forward to whatever else the author writes.

    Julia - It would be really interesting to get your perspective on this one, Julia, being that you are from Vietnam. It must have been such a difficult time for everyone, all that fighting, constantly.

    Serena - Thank you, Serena. This book made such a big impression on me. I am glad I was able to fit it in for the challenge.

    Christine - I hope you do get a chance to read this one, Christine!

    Florinda - I begged to be put on this tour since I was doing the Vietnam War Challenge and am so glad I did. I usually don't go that far. LOL It proved to be worth it and this will definitely be one of my favorite books come the end of the year.

    Kathleen - I haven't read too much in the way of fiction related to the Vietnam War either. Most of my selections for the Vietnam War Challenge this year, as a result, are fiction. I do hope you get a chance to read this one!

    Jenclair - The Hurt Locker really made an impression on me too. It was such a good movie.

  21. Nymeth - Thank you, Nymeth. I was inspired by such a great book. :-)

    Terri - Oh, I do! I made note of several of the titles in the bibliography so I can check them out. I hadn't known there were actual female photojournalists in Vietnam during the war. I'm especially interested in learning more about their stories now.

    Kathy - Thank you. You did a great job with your review of The Hurt Locker. Maybe I should just link back to yours when I get around to doing mine. :-)

    Darlene - I am so glad I decided to read this one.

    Carrie - I look forward to reading your thoughts on this one, Carrie.

    Teddy - I went back and forth about this one too, Teddy. I finally decided to give it a try because I was looking for another Vietnam War Challenge book. I love it when a book I have doubts about completely wins me over. There's a sweet justice in that. :-)

  22. Zibilee - Thank you! My dad was a Vietnam War Vet and so I've always been drawn to that time period. I burnt out on reading stuff related to that particular war though after going through a phase where I read book after book on the topic. This was my first foray back into it--and I'm glad it was such a success.

    Tasha (Heidenkind) - Thanks! Two completely different situations, but I couldn't help but compare the two as I read.

    Alice - I've heard of Oliver Poole's book and will be anxious to read your thoughts on it. I've been watching the HBO miniseries called The Pacific, which is about the U.S. fight with the Japanese during WWII. It paints a very vivid and gut-wrenching portrait of war. My heart goes out to all those brave soldiers--on both sides.

    Linda - I keep wanting to type "Lotus Readers" for some reason. LOL I kept having to correct myself when I was writing my review.

    I'd heard that highlighting in the e-readers was fairly easy--certainly convenient. I am glad you are enjoying your Kindle. :-) Maybe someday I'll have an e-reader of my own.

    Lisa - I hope you do enjoy it as much as I did--even half as much would be good. :-)

    Nancy - It's beautifully written. I look forward to reading what you think of it when you're done.

  23. What a beautifully written review! I'll be starting this book for my tour date soon, and now you've made me really excited to be reading it.

    I've always been curious about my dad's experiences in Vietnam, where he was, what he did, what he saw. Unfortunately, he's been gone for 10 years, so I can't ask him. I know he carried a lot of emotional baggage related to the war, which is not surprising at all.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  24. What a wonderful book-I want to go out and read this.


    onto my wish list it goes.

  25. Wendy...what a terrific review. I love books like this set in a country that I need to learn more about. (I was lucky to when this book a few days ago).

    Have a great week.

  26. Sounds like an emotionally wrenching read but a deep one.

    I'm also passing on an award. The details will be at the above link when I finish the post.

  27. I just finished reading this book and I skimmed over your review, not wanting your words to stick, but to see if the overall feeling you had was similar to mine. I too thought it was an outstanding book - mesmerizing and beautiful, and horrifyingly sad. I hope to get my review up soon. Then I will come back and read yours!

  28. Wendy, I'm blown away by your review. It sounds amazing and you are such a talented reviewer :-) I'm thrilled that you enjoyed the book, and even without your reading journal you expressed your thoughts on it beautifully. Thanks so much for all the time you put into reading/reviewing The Lotus Eaters. It is greatly appreciated.

  29. Wow!! A five paw book. I don't see too many of those. I think the key thing to note about a book like this, is that it takes beautiful writing to balance out the horror. From what you've written here, the author accomplished that and more. Lovely.

  30. Thank you all for your wonderful comments! Sorry for the generic reply. I hope to get to all of your blogs soon to properly say hello and see what you've all been up to lately.

    I'm so glad I took a chance on this book. It really whetted my appetite for more novels set in this time period and location--a good start to the Vietnam War Challenge, I'd say!

  31. We posted about your review here on War Through the Generations.

    Diary of an Eccentric


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