Inside an old mansion in the swampland of Florida, three generations of women find the heart of their relationships by revisiting their pasts.
"Banyan Moon" by Thao Thai is the July 2023 Read With Jenna pick, which Jenna Bush Hager calls "an epic love story between mothers and daughters."
"When Minh, the beloved matriarch of the Tran family, passes away, her granddaughter, Ann, goes back to the family house in Florida. It’s the story of Ann and her estranged mom Huong, and the sweeping love story of Minh in Vietnam," Jenna says.
"Banyan Moon" is Thai's debut novel, and features three perspectives from the Tran family: Ann, Huơng and Minh are all narrators. Thai tells TODAY.com the book centers around the three women as they “grapple with some real losses and secrets.”
"This is definitely a book for those who really like to explore issues of history, of belonging and people who are very curious about the complexities of mother-daughter relationships," Thai says.
When Ann returns to her childhood home after Minh's death, known as the Banyan House, she is forced to reconnect with her estranged mother.
"It’s definitely a book where a little bit gets unfolded at a time because it’s got this rotating first person perspective," Thai says. "So I think for people who like hearing a lot of different voices in a novel, this will be a good one."
The family’s Gothic home in Florida is inspired by the Ca' d'Zan, a palace based on the palazzos of Venice once owned by the Ringling. Thai recalls playing on the sprawling banyan trees on the Ca' D'Zan grounds as a child in Sarasota.
"When you're a child, I think you see places in a very different way. It's so much more expansive, and it feels bigger somehow," she says. "So I wanted to imbue that same sense of magic and wonder when I was talking about landscape in 'Banyan Moon.'"
In addition to the chapters in Florida, the novel is interspersed with flashbacks from Minh's life in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s.
Thao says the idea for her debut novel came to her gradually, but it all started with Minh's perspective from the afterlife. Minh begins her narration while watching people talk about her at her own funeral.
"The first thing I imagined was the grandmother Minh's perspective. I saw her watching her own funeral, and I thought to myself, 'What must that be like to feel so tied to the people who are still living, and yet to be unable to reach them in this way?' I think there was something really touching to me about that and really true to what mothers can feel when they're letting their children out into the world," she says.
Thao adds that she had been dreaming of being picked for Jenna's book club — literally.
"I had been carrying this hope secretly in my heart for so long. I wanted it with every fiber of my being actually," Thai says with a laugh. "She really picks diverse books that deal with a lot of issues, of family and heritage, and her books have always spoken to me. So the thought of being on that list — I would dream about it, I would literally dream it."
Thai recalls her editor telling her she had good news, and then getting the call where she found out she was the July 2023 pick.
"I just screamed the word 'No!' 10 times," she says. "Which is not the most eloquent way you should speak to your editor, by the way. I was in disbelief. And I was so honored. And I still am — I'm still just reeling from it.
"Every time I see that seal on my book I get I get really emotional honestly, because I just think of somebody who's doing something to bring books back into the hands of readers and to support it with the aim of really making reading a part of everyone's lives again," she continues.
"Banyan Moon" publishes on June 27, and Jenna can't wait for readers to pick it up this summer.
"I read it very quickly, it's the perfect summer read," Jenna says. "I hope you'll read with me."