"This is a country of tall people," Dinh Luong frequently reminds his daughters, Van and Linny, the protagonists of Bich Minh Nguyen's first novel, "Short Girls," which follows her acclaimed memoir, "Stealing Buddha's Dinner." For the Luong family, height is a metaphor for the limitations of their Vietnamese heritage, recorded for posterity on the wall of their suburban Michigan home: Dinh, 5 feet 3; Van, 5- 1/8 ; Mrs. Luong, 4-11 1/2 ; Linny, 4-11.
Dinh's indignation crystallizes when a friend plays a song he calls "Short People Are No Reason to Live." His daughter tries to explain that it's "got," not "are," but the distinction doesn't matter much. Dinh's inventions -- the Luong Arm, the Luong Eye and the Luong Wall, each designed to overcome the obstacles of shortness -- are never successfully patented or sold.
Van, the serious-minded older sister, has always been an overachiever, her journey through law school spurred by the need to help her father with his patents and to assist their friends and community with immigration and green card issues. As a girl, she maintained for her dad a list of Famous Short People, including Queen Elizabeth I, Danny DeVito, Pablo Picasso, Honore de Balzac and Tom Cruise.
By the time "Short Girls" begins, however, Van's sense of possibility has been profoundly curtailed. In the wake of Sept. 11, she is unable to keep a client from being deported for carrying a concealed firearm, a verdict she takes so personally that she changes jobs to a dull position shuffling visa paperwork.
This defeat is followed closely by a miscarriage and kicks off a downward spiral that culminates in her tall, fourth-generation California Chinese husband walking out on her without a word.
Younger sister Linny is the opposite of Van -- in fact, she seems like a character from a chick lit novel, with a life of brand-name clothing, boyfriends, happy hours and a job at You Did It Dinners, where she helps suburban moms put together ready-to-eat meals for the freezer.
Though her family never stops giving her a hard time for dropping out of college -- and most people seem to think her destiny is to work in a nail salon like the one in which her mother dropped dead of a stroke at 42 -- she has far more self-confidence than her older, brighter and even slightly taller sister.
A typical moment occurs when Linny runs into an old classmate at her father's citizenship party:
"Then Lisa gave Linny her full attention, lowering and raising her eyes to take in Linny's outfit, hair, makeup, shoes. It happened in an instant and was what Linny called the Asian Once-over -- the assessing look so many Asian American girls had to give each other upon meeting or passing on a street. A way of gauging cred and territory, Linny thought, as if to determine which of them was going to be the alpha Asian girl. Whenever Linny got the Asian Once-over she gave it right back."
But things are going badly for Linny also -- her affair with a married white guy has taken a negative turn, and she is plagued by memories of her parents' unhappy marriage, as well as a longtime suspicion of her father's infidelity, which still bothers her even though her mother has been dead for nine years. The sleazy boyfriend and a few gal pals aside, Linny is very alone in the world.
When she sees Van's husband with another woman in a Chicago hotel bar, she realizes she's not the only one with problems. But the two sisters have grown so far apart that it takes most of the novel for them to reconnect. What do they have to offer each other, anyway, each wonders.
"You can be like the famous Trung sisters," their mother told them when they were little. The Trungs, she explained, were Vietnamese sisters who used their martial arts skills to rebel against Chinese rule and become queens.
But when Van looks up the story later, she feels betrayed. First, she can hardly find anything about the little-known sisters. Then, she learns that they ended up relinquishing their power to the Chinese, before committing suicide by throwing themselves in a river.
Van and Linny avoid that fate, but their reunion, like much else in this novel -- including their father's appearance on a virtual reality show featuring amateur inventors and their inventions -- is subdued.
More sad than funny, more real than lightweight, Nguyen's story offers its characters not revenge, redemption or even success, but acceptance. Even in the country of tall people, short will have to be good enough.