On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong

Book cover

I read this as the first selection of a small book club in Hartford. The book, which is autobiographical fiction, is set in Hartford, where Vuong himself grew up. Among many other things, I enjoyed reading a story of modern Hartford–so much of what this city prides itself on is back in the 17-1800s.

Vuong became famous as a poet, and his writing in this book is certainly poetic–he even switches to quasi-verse at a couple of points in the book. For me it hit a good balance of feeling inventive and intentional without feeling overwritten. Also perhaps like poetry, Vuong uses a lot of recurring symbolism–most of which I felt worked really well, although some of which our discussion group struggled to interpret! And there are many vivid and memorable scenes, including the street funeral when the narrator goes to Vietnam, and the narrator and Trevor in the tobacco-drying barn listening to football on the radio.

I often found myself wondering which aspects of the story were “truly” autobiographical, and which were fictional–a question I know it isn’t really worth asking, but I couldn’t help it! The “frame story,” which poses the narrative as a letter to the narrator’s mother, prompted a lot of good discussion about what aspects of the narrator’s life were included and excluded based on the presumed audience of one.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars