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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous: A beautiful but heartbreaking read

A review by Lindsey Travis

“Because the sunset, like survival, exists only on the verge of its own disappearing. To be gorgeous, you must first be seen, but to be seen allows you to be hunted.” This quote from Ocean Vuong’s first novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous demonstrates Vuong’s ability to pair poetic beauty with devastating trauma. Vuong’s extraordinary writing comes from the perspective a young Vietnamese-American writer named Little Dog as a he pens letters to his mother that she will never read. His mother is illiterate, her education cut short after the destruction of her school in Vietnam following an American raid.


Through Little Dog’s touching but heartbreaking letters the reader gets a glimpse into the Vietnam War, which his mother experienced when she was very young. The letters explore the trauma of war, the tragedy of mental illness and abuse, the difficulties of growing up as an immigrant, and the love a child has for his mother despite her flaws and mistakes. All of these revelations help paint a picture of the man that Little Dog has become. It is clear that Little Dog is writing the letters as a way to process his past. While his mother will never read his writings, by penning the letters he can pave a way for his future.


Vuong’s novel is not for the faint of heart. It is both a heartbreaking read and hard to put down. The beauty of Vuong’s writing draws the reader in but may bring tears as well. Overall, the reader is left with a better understanding of the life as a first-generation immigrant to the United States. It also paints a picture of the horrors of war and how those horrors affect not only those who experience them firsthand, but how they affect the following generations as well.


I would recommend On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous to readers who enjoy books about the immigrant experience or books that take a first-hand look at historic or cultural events. Readers who like books by Khaled Hosseini such as the Kite Runner, And the Mountains Echoed, and A Thousand Splendid Suns and fans of books by Jhumpa Lahiri such as The Namesake may like this book as well.


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is available in ebook format with a library card through OverDrive.

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