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Table of Contents
About The Book
“Mai Nguyen has proven herself to be a real standout.” —Taylor Jenkins Reid, New York Times bestselling author
A tender, humorous, and page-turning debut about a Vietnamese Canadian family in Toronto who will do whatever it takes to protect their no-frills nail salon after a new high end salon opens up—even if it tears the family apart. Perfect for readers of Olga Dies Dreaming and The Fortunes of Jaded Women.
Vietnamese refugees Debbie and Phil Tran have built a comfortable life for themselves in Toronto with their family nail salon. But when an ultra-glam chain salon opens across the street, their world is rocked.
Complicating matters further, their landlord has jacked up the rent and it seems only a matter of time before they lose their business and everything they’ve built. They enlist the help of their daughter, Jessica, who has just returned home after a messy breakup and a messier firing. Together with their son, Dustin, and niece, Thuy, they devise some good old-fashioned sabotage. Relationships are put to the test as the line between right and wrong gets blurred. Debbie and Phil must choose: do they keep their family intact or fight for their salon?
Sunshine Nails is a light-hearted, urgent fable of gentrification with a cast of memorable and complex characters who showcase the diversity of immigrant experiences and community resilience.
If Debbie Tran could go back in time, she would stop herself from reading that damn Yelp review.
It had been such a lovely day up until that point. She’d made offerings of mandarins and daffodils to the altar, cooked all her family’s favorites, and cleaned the entire house. In a few hours, her eldest child would be coming home for good. Nobody in the family knew exactly why, but it didn’t take a genius to figure it out. Eight years ago, Jessica moved to Los Angeles for love and a job, and now she had neither. Whatever the reason, Debbie didn’t care. She was so thrilled Jessica was returning that she happily paid for the flight.
Debbie pulled out her tablet and did what she always did whenever her children got on a plane: tracked the path of the flight. As she watched that little green plane inch closer and closer to Toronto, that’s when that stupid notification popped up at the top of the screen.
You’ve received a new review.
Without thinking, Debbie clicked on it and a big fat one-star review appeared on the screen.
I came to the salon for a manicure and pedicure on the weekend. The lady who was working on me was SO rude and she had disgusting black gunk underneath her fingernails. They were so long and unkempt. It was gross. She also cut my nails too short when I specifically told her “not too short.” She doesn’t speak English that well so she probably didn’t understand me. Still, SO UNPROFESSIONAL. I’m never going back again!!! Can’t wait till that new salon opens nearby. Bet it’s light years better than this one!
Debbie looked at her nails. Okay, so they were a little dry and her cuticles a little overgrown, but by no means was there any “disgusting black gunk” underneath her nails. She washed her hands so often that cracks had formed on her fingertips. Besides, in her twenty years of running the salon, not one single person had ever complained about this.
And what was this about a new salon? There was no other nail salon in the area for miles. This person had to have been mistaken. Debbie checked their overall rating. The review dropped Sunshine Nails from four stars to three stars.
She checked the flight status again. Jessica’s plane was going to land any minute now. It would take her another hour or so to get through customs, baggage claim, and traffic on the highway. Phil and Thuy were still at the salon. Dustin would be home from work soon. She needed to fix herself up. Wash her hair, put on some makeup, pick an outfit that—
Not too short? How dare that person assume she didn’t know English. She’d lived in Toronto for over thirty years, took ESL for those first two, and aced all the tests. In fact, she did so well she was invited to come back as a guest speaker to show the new cohort what a success story she was. Too short? Next time that woman came into the salon Debbie would show her what too short really looked like.
It wasn’t like Sunshine Nails had never gotten negative feedback. They’d been slammed on everything from the decor (“A bit tacky but in a charming kind of way”) to the lack of air-conditioning (“Felt like I was stranded in the Arabian Desert!”) to the service (“The staff was impersonal and abrupt”).
But there was a difference between constructive criticism and personal attack. And this latest review was clearly an attack on their livelihood.
Debbie was just glad her husband didn’t see it. Phil got even more worked up over these things than she did. Once, he stayed up until three in the morning responding to every single negative review he could find. They were not professional or eloquent responses by any measure, but they had worked too hard, sacrificed too much, to let some ungrateful people get away with saying nasty things about their salon.
Debbie looked at herself in the mirror. She couldn’t greet her daughter like this, all angry and a mess.
A bath. That’s how she would calm down. She wasn’t going to let this review suck all the joy out of this special day. She didn’t even remember working on someone named Erin. Maybe it was one of those internet phenomena Dustin had warned her about. What was it again? A troll. Yes, that must be it. It had to be a troll.
While soaking in the tub, she thought about all the times she felt wronged in her life. There were too many to count. Bloodthirsty communists forcing her out of Vietnam was one. Being thrown onto a perilously overcrowded boat on the South China Sea was another. This one-star review? It was up there, too.
As she sank a little deeper into the warm bath, she turned her white jade ring round and round on her finger. That ring was as much a part of her body as her organs. It never left her hand, not since that treacherous voyage of 1983. When those pirates ransacked the boat and abducted the prettiest girls, Debbie instinctively tucked the ring underneath her upper lip and prayed the pirates would see her simple, undecorated body and leave her alone. They took one look at her, spat on her face, then moved along. To this day, Debbie swore the ring saved her life all those years ago. Tonight, she prayed it would bring her the peace she needed in time for her daughter’s homecoming.
As her calluses began to soften in the warm water, so did her resolve to punish whoever this person was. She closed her eyes and focused on her breath. In and out. In and out. She tried very hard to let nothing and nobody penetrate her thoughts now.
But Erin’s words were like a hangnail that wouldn’t go away. She couldn’t let it go. How could she when it felt like someone had just shit on everything she’d worked so hard for? Debbie sat up straight in the tub, reached for the tablet, and typed up a response.
I have never met you before in my life. This review is a complete fabrication. Furthermore, we have never once had a complaint about our staff’s hygiene. We take very good care of our customers and take their concerns seriously. You, however, are a liar and you should be ashamed of yourself. P.S. How is my English now?
As soon as she hit that publish button, she felt euphoric. Then came the notification. Jessica’s flight had landed.
Reading Group Guide
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A tender, humorous, and page-turning debut about a Vietnamese Canadian family in Toronto who will do whatever it takes to protect their no-frills nail salon after a new high-end salon opens up—even if it tears the family apart. Perfect for readers of Olga Dies Dreaming and The Fortunes of Jaded Women.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Sunshine Nails is told through the different points of view of the Tran family, alternating between chapters from Debbie, Phil, Jessica, Dustin, and Thuy. How were each similar or different?
2. What were your first impressions of the Take Ten owner, Savannah?
3. The Tran Family is broken into two generations, the parents, Debbie and Phil, along with their adult children, Jessica and Dustin, and niece, Thuy. How do both generations differ?
4. There are many funny scenes throughout the novel. Which moments made you laugh and how did they make you feel about these characters?
5. Why is the golden Buddha statue at the salon such an important symbol to the family? What do you think it represents?
6. Both Dustin and Jessica seem somewhat listless in the beginning of the novel. How do they each evolve and grow up as the story nears its conclusion?
7. Compare how Phil tries to fix the family’s financial troubles with Debbie’s actions. Did you think one was more extreme than the other?
8. Jessica’s high school friendships appear throughout the story and eventually become central to the drama between Sunshine Nails and Take Ten. Do you think these relationships are significant to her growth in the story? Discuss how these friendships change as the events unfold.
9. Do you agree with Thuy’s choice to work at Take Ten? Discuss what events and actions led her to this decision.
10. Though set in Toronto, does Sunshine Nails feel like a universal story that could be set in another city? Why or why not?
11. Each character brings something different to the story. Did you relate to any of them? If so, please explain who and why.
12. How did the conclusion make you feel? What do you think the Trans learned, if anything? Were you happy with where each family member ends up?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Sunshine Nails is a family-owned-and-operated business. Think about what your dream family business might be. Is there a specific location you have in mind? What would make your business unique? Who in your family would you choose to partner with and why? Come up with a name and concept to share with the group!
2. The nail industry is constantly evolving, with new products, trends, and techniques entering salons what can feel like daily. Discuss how the industry has changed in your area. Have you noticed fewer small businesses and more chain style salons, like Take Ten?
3. Everyone come up with a nail polish color and name it!
4. To learn more about Mai Nguyen, read reviews of Sunshine Nails, and learn about events, visit Mai’s official site at www.mainguyen.ca.
A Conversation with Mai Nguyen
Q: Stories focused on family dynamics are evergreen in literature. Why did you choose to explore the different relationships within the Tran family?
A: Fun fact: I initially started writing this book through Jessica’s point of view only. But as I began introducing all the members of the family, it became clear that everyone needed their own narrative. Jessica’s world is heavily informed by her parents’ world, and same with Dustin and Thuy. They’re all inextricably linked in such a way that to intimately know one character would mean needing to know the other characters. Sharing everyone’s perspectives certainly added more layers to the story and allowed me to show all the different dynamics at play. Everyone has their own motivations and problems, and some get along better than others. When it comes to family relationships, I find so much of the drama lies in the subtleties, like the way Debbie’s eyes linger on Jessica’s tattoo, or the way Thuy enviously watches Jessica rub lotion on herself at the beach. There’s so much that’s unsaid, yet you can still feel the tiny little tensions in these relationships. I think we can learn a lot about characters by the way they interact with the people they love.
Q: Tell us a bit about your inspiration for the novel.
A: When I was a kid, my parents opened a nail salon in Halifax, Nova Scotia. They had broken English and not very much money, but they did the training and trusted in the word of their fellow Viets, who said this was the ticket to financial success. And it paid off. They’ve been running the nail salon for over twenty-five years and have made a good living for themselves. This nail salon means everything to my parents, just like it does for the Trans. It was important for me to show that this isn’t just a job for some people, but a salvation.
Q: Was there one character you felt most connected to? Who was the most challenging to write?
A: I feel most connected to Jessica. We’re quite similar in a sense. We both moved out of home right after high school. We both started losing our Vietnamese fluency as we chased freedom and independence. Jessica also had this sense of duty to “give back” to her parents for all they’ve sacrificed for her, which I believe is a common feeling among many children of immigrants.
As for who was the most challenging to write, I’d say it was Thuy, mostly because I don’t have the lived experience of being a teenager newly transplanted in a foreign country. My parents have sponsored several relatives’ immigrations to Canada, so I’ve seen the struggles they face settling into a new country, making new friends, learning the language. But most of all, I think the most difficult part for them is finding their own purpose and carving out a path that hasn’t already been mapped out for them.
Q: Sunshine Nails is heartfelt and hilarious while also tackling frustrating and serious issues. How did you find a balance between these two dynamics?
A: I don’t think I could’ve written a story about a modern-day Vietnamese family without any humor. Most Vietnamese people I know are quite unserious. Even in the face of calamities, they always find a bright side, a reason to laugh. So it felt very natural to have the Trans be a lighthearted family that can still crack a joke even when everything around them seems to be crumbling. It’s a human impulse to grasp at joy, especially during difficult times.
Q: What novels were you drawn to growing up? And now as an adult?
A: I read a lot of cozy books growing up, like Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys. I think I was drawn to the safety and comfort of these genres. Now I’ve gone in the complete opposite direction and crave stories about heartbreak, life transitions, societal collapse, strained relationships, grief, you know, all the things that come with adulthood. These books make me feel less alone, so I guess you could say they are cozy in that sense.
Q: How did you shift your focus from your journalistic background to writing fiction?
A: My fascination with the nail salon industry started when I wrote an article for a Toronto magazine called Worn Fashion Journal. I explored the history of Vietnamese-run nail salons and investigated why there was such a proliferation of them all around North America. That’s when I learned about the role that actress Tippi Hedren played in educating the first wave of Vietnamese nail technicians. After I finished writing that article, there was so much more I wanted to say, not just about the history but about the day-to-day life of a nail tech, the struggles, the joys, the drama. And I thought the best way to do that was through fiction. Contrary to what I was taught in journalism school, I think fiction can often reflect our realities and engage readers in a much more accessible way than nonfiction can. Plus, it’s logistically difficult to find real-life sources who will divulge every detail of their lives with you. With fiction, it’s all in my head!
Q: As a writer, what do you hope readers take away from your novel?
A: After reading this book, I hope readers will see nail technicians as full human beings who have a voice and personality and a complex life outside of work. They’re not helpless or feeble or the butt of the joke. They’re so much more than that.
Q: Do you have a next project in mind? If so, what can you share about it?
A: I’m working away on a second book that’s completely different from Sunshine Nails. It’s a story about best friends who blissfully become first-time mothers at the exact same time, but then a sudden tragedy threatens to tear their relationship apart. While the themes are a bit heavier, it carries the same warmth and tenderness found in Sunshine Nails.
- Publisher: Atria Books (July 4, 2023)
- Length: 304 pages
- ISBN13: 9781668010495
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Raves and Reviews
"Nguyen debuts with a glittering story of a family nail salon in Toronto...Nguyen imbues her characters with humanity and nuance, making hay from all their imperfections. Readers are in for a treat."—Publishers Weekly
"Sharp, witty, and warmhearted, Nguyen's debut tackles gentrification, small business ownership, prejudice in the workplace, and--most importantly--the depth of familial ties, and the power of a good manicure."—Shelf Awareness
“Filled with heart and humor, Sunshine Nails is an insightful, moving story with striking depth, taking on gentrification, family expectations, and generational differences. You will be rooting for the Tran family through every risk and sacrifice they make to save their salon, and ultimately themselves. Mai Nguyen has proven herself to be a real standout.” —Taylor Jenkins Reid, New York Times bestselling author of Carrie Soto is Back
"The story of the Tran family is full of zany, hilarious fun — but it’s also poignant and told with care. Sunshine Nails made me laugh, cry, and think deeply about culture, family, and the ties that bind. What a witty and engaging debut — I was thoroughly charmed!"—Marissa Stapley, New York Times-bestselling author of Lucky
“An uplifting story about family, acceptance, and moving forward, Sunshine Nails beautifully illustrates the push and pull of generational divides within the boisterous Tran family and the Vietnamese diaspora within their Toronto community. Sunshine Nails is a heartwarming and colorful debut, proving Mai Nguyen to be an exciting new voice in fiction.”—Sonya Lalli, author of A Holly Jolly Diwali and Jasmine and Jake Rock the Boat
“Like a fresh set of diamond-encrusted gel nails, Nguyen truly sparkles in this hilarious, poignant and utterly engrossing comedy of Vietnamese diaspora, gentrification, class, race, and the millennial pressures of finding oneself among overbearing family members. The immigrant story is usually stoic and filled with suffering, but here, a new kind of Asian-Canadian narrative comes to light, one that is so fundamentally joyful and human, it will make you laugh out loud and cry simultaneously. With an abundance of wit, heart, and cleverness, Nguyen explores the complex realities of kinship and belonging faced by Asian immigrants. I loved it.”—Lindsay Wong, author of The Woo-Woo and Tell Me Pleasant Things about Immortality
“Sunshine Nails is a phenomenal debut from Mai Nguyen. This page-turning story about the Tran family’s desperate attempts to keep their nail salon in business will have you rooting for them as often as you shake your head. It’s a delightful romp, with keen social commentary and writing that simply sparkles. Put it on your summer reading list ASAP!”—Carley Fortune, New York Times bestselling author of Every Summer After
“Sunshine Nails manages to be lighthearted and funny while it also shrewdly addresses complex topics, like gentrification and anti-Asian racism. I loved the Tran family and their bright, compelling story.” —Emily Austin, author of Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead
“Sharply observed and incisively detailed, Sunshine Nails is a beautiful debut novel rich with specificity, rooted in a love of and understanding of Toronto and the intricate nuances of the intergenerational divides within an immigrant community. Affectionately written with care for each facet of character, it is a deeply pleasurable, moving, and fast paced read seeped in sensory detail and deeply loving of its subject matter, inviting the reader to fall in love with this funny flawed family too.”—Leah Franqui, author of America for Beginners and After the Hurricane
“Sunshine Nails is a compelling exploration of family, identity, and community. Readers everywhere will root for the Tran family as they navigate love and work. Told with a rare blend of humor and insight, this delightful story shows that Mai Nguyen is a writer to watch! —Saumya Dave, author of What a Happy Family and Well-Behaved Indian Women
"Sunshine Nails is a fresh, fun take on family dynamics and the secrets we keep to protect each other. Well-defined characters and deft navigation of the highs and lows of the immigrant experience make this book a delightful read. Nguyen’s writing sparkles—I can’t wait to tell everyone about this!" —Sierra Godfrey, author of A Very Typical Family
"A whip-smart and hilarious David versus Goliath romp. The Tran family will have you biting your nails as they claw at their competition and each other. Will they survive? Or will they lie forever in the proverbial nail bed that they made? But the Vietnamese diaspora will always find their way back home—even if they lose an eyelash or two along the way." —Carolyn Huynh, author of The Fortunes of Jaded Women
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- Book Cover Image (jpg): Sunshine Nails Hardcover 9781668010495
- Author Photo (jpg): Mai Nguyen Photograph by Lucy Doan(0.1 MB)
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