As an English major at a pretty reputable university, I end up reading a lot more classics in the classroom than most people do in their free time. In the course of my time at Yale, I’ve read (literally) every single work of Jane Austen, 32/37 of Shakespeare’s plays, and the entirety of Paradise Lost. So, color me surprised when I walked into an American Studies class and got assigned a “classic” that I’d never even heard of. The Quiet American was the first novel on the syllabus, and I could have sworn I had heard of Graham Greene before, but I’m pretty sure I was getting him confused with a children’s author who wrote about animals. My bad.
I’m taking this Vietnam War class Credit/D/Fail, which is our version of Pass/Fail, so I wasn’t anticipating reading the entire book, but I thought I’d give it the old college try. I could not put it down. It is just under 200 pages, around 180-190 if I can recall correctly, and it was captivating. Set in Vietnam before the US really got involved, it concerns a British journalist, an American with questionable intentions, and the Vietnamese woman (Phuong) whom they both love and covet.
This is not your typical war book, but neither is it a spy thriller. It’s a lovely combination of all of the above, coupled with a little bit of romance (though not the type of love story you might want in your own life,) and a really interesting look at the pre-history of what would become such a hotly contested and deadly war .This book was published in the 1950s before American troops were on the ground in Vietnam, and Greene is a British author like his protagonist Fowler, but this book should be read by anyone. I knew very little about the Vietnam War going into this class and this novel, and while this was fiction, it provided a lot of interesting context and facts woven into the narrative.
The timeline of the story does get a bit wonky, as Fowler relays incidents that happened before the pivotal death and after in a rather unorganized manner, but if you can power through the book you will not regret it. It is only 180 pages, and it is pretty easy to re-situate yourself when time changes, because a certain character comes back to life. Greene saves the best for last though, so look forward to those last 15 or so pages!
The Quiet American has been made into a film twice, most recently in 2002 with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser. Caine was nominated for an Oscar for his role as Thomas Fowler.