Reviewed by Meghan Vermeer
WARNING: Please be advised, this honest review critiques creative work containing adult sexual content.
Wow. I could just stop the review there because this book is that good. Like its title, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is absolutely gorgeous. I don’t think I have ever read a book with more poetic prose. It is truly well done, so let’s talk about it!
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a semi-autobiographical novel, narrated by a Vietnamese American man. It is framed as a letter to his mother, who cannot read and will likely never read the letter. The narrator covers his family history, from his mother’s PTSD that results in his occasional abuse, to his grandmother’s relationship with an American soldier, to his own teenage relationship with someone addicted to drugs. Through the stories the narrator shares, readers are enveloped in issues of race, language, war, drugs, and so much more. While all of the stories are beautifully written and important to the novel as a whole, I must warn you—there are some scenes with graphic adult sexual content that might be uncomfortable for some readers.
Family relationships are a huge part of this novel. The narrator, Little Dog, talks mostly about his mother, to whom the novel is addressed, and his grandmother. Immigrating to the U.S. changes all of their lives, but the love they have for each other never changes. When his mother abuses him, Little Dog’s grandmother helps him heal. When his grandmother is ill, his mother takes care of her. When his mother has a long day at the nail salon, both his grandmother and Little Dog massage her sore muscles. The love is always there.
This novel also tackles race and language. Because Little Dog is young when the family immigrates, he picks up on English. His mother, however, does not. This often proves to be a complication, as you can imagine in a predominantly English-speaking country. It does not help that Little Dog’s mother appears white because of her mother’s relationship with an American soldier. The white skin and lack of English are woven throughout the novel.
In On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Vuong sets up a web of literary art. There are so many connections strung throughout the book; each page references something on another page, begging readers to take a second, even more eye-opening look than before. I honestly have no idea how Vuong has pulled this together because everything, from the first page to the last, is intricately connected. This also would be the section where I normally would say something that could have been improved, but I’ve got nothing!
I absolutely recommend this book. I was an English major in college and have missed reading great literature, so it felt amazing to read such a well-written book again. My only caution in recommending this book to everyone is the graphic sexual content, so be mindful of that. Otherwise, if you are looking for a book that is poetic and eye-opening, enjoy!