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Sunshine Nails

A Novel


About The Book

A Real Simple Must-Read Book of Summer 2023

“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.

Reading Group Guide

This reading group guide for Sunshine Nails includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Mai Nguyen. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


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

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.

About The Author

Photograph by Lucy Doan

Mai Nguyen is a National Magazine Award–nominated journalist and copywriter who has written for Wired, The Washington Post, The Toronto Star, and several major brands. Raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she now lives in Toronto. Sunshine Nails is her debut novel. Visit her at

About The Readers

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (July 4, 2023)
  • Runtime: 10 hours
  • ISBN13: 9781797157542

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