Conversations with Authors - Lan and Harlan Cao with Isabel Allende (Virtual Event)

Sunday, October 18th, 2020

Online • Live • 4:00pm PT/7:00pm ET

Conversations with Authors is our free online event series! Join us throughout the week for new chats between different authors.


A note from Lan and Harlan:

Dear Friends of Book Passage,

Thank you for joining Isabel and the two of us for our conversation about our book, Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, An American Daughter. When Lan first met Isabel in 1997 at Book Passage in Corte Madera, Isabel referred to Book Passage as “my second home.” And it is clear why she would feel this way. It’s a place that Elaine has lovingly reconfigured as a virtual sanctuary for writers and readers, to enable us to connect with each other, in these strange times of displacement and disconnectedness and isolation.

From Lan—

Books and passages I love:

  • A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende. The title alone, from a Pablo Neruda poem, drew me inexorably into the epic story of love and resilience set against the savaged world of Pinochet’s war and exile. The beauty of poetry against the terror of tyranny.
  • The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Memories of pain and losses, told by four people, caught in a ghost house after World War II. I was intrigued by the fact that the titular English Patient was actually not English at all, but rather Hungarian; and that so much pain and trauma are told in such a lyrical prose.
  • Cereus Blooms at Night by Shani Mootoo. Part magical realism, part naked, horrifying truths. What struck me when I first read this book years ago was the storyteller, a male nurse stigmatized for his sexual orientation, who told the tender story of Mala and who bonded with her, a woman with her own history of abandonment, sexual abuse, and madness.


  • September 1, 1939 and Refugee Blues by W. H. Auden (read both of these poems freshman year in high school when my English teacher made photocopies and gave them to me.)
  • One Art by Elizabeth Bishop (discovered this poet myself when I wandered the shelves at my public library in Virginia.)
  • Diving into the Wreck by Adrienne Rich (read in college — WOW.)

From Harlan—

It means very much to me that everyone checked into our event with Isabel and Elaine.

Here are some books I have loved:

  • Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (my biggest inspiration for all of my future characters—lovable or not—and for how I write.)
  • Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austin (a classic love story, but one that isn’t as traditional as one would think.)
  • The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (the perfect representation of how terrifying human nature is.)
  • Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (this story was adapted into a screenplay and perfectly captures class and racial issues today in the most subtle but somehow also shocking way possible.)

Please remember that everything—even this pandemic hell—passes, and so all we will be left with is whatever energy we put out into the world: therefore, be happy and kind to one another.
Also please be environmentally conscious (I know that's off topic but I want to use this platform to say I really love the elephants and pandas and the ocean so let's take care of them.)


—Lan and Harlan


Lan Cao’s dual first-person memoir, Family in Six Tones—co-authored with her American daughter Harlan Margaret Van Cao—explores their complicated relationship, culture clash, and how they have grown both as individuals and as a family.

Lan is a Vietnamese American writer who left Saigon for the U.S. as a refugee in 1975. She is the author of two other novels, Monkey Bridge and The Lotus and the Storm. Both novels tell the stories of Vietnamese refugees in America, set against the Vietnam War and its traumatic aftermath for those who are left with its haunting legacy. In both novels, the war is told from a Vietnamese American perspective.

Lan is also a professor of law and has taught at Brooklyn Law School, Michigan Law School, Duke Law School, and William & Mary Law School. She is currently working at Chapman Law School in Orange, CA. She has written numerous articles on public international law, international trade, and rule of law development. Her book Culture in Law and Development: Nurturing Positive Change was published by Oxford University Press in 2015.

Isabel Allende—novelist, feminist, and philanthropist—is one of the most widely-read authors in the world, having sold more than 74 million books. Born in Peru and raised in Chile, she won worldwide acclaim in 1982 with the publication of her hugely popular first novel, The House of the Spirits. In addition to her work as a writer, Allende devotes much of her time to human rights causes.


Below, please find links to purchase their books.




Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter By Lan Cao, Harlan Margaret Van Cao Cover Image
Email or call for price
ISBN: 9781984878168
Published: Viking - September 15th, 2020

Staff Pick Badge
A Long Petal of the Sea: A Novel By Isabel Allende, Nick Caistor (Translated by), Amanda Hopkinson (Translated by) Cover Image
By Isabel Allende, Nick Caistor (Translated by), Amanda Hopkinson (Translated by)
Email or call for price
ISBN: 9781984820150
Published: Ballantine Books - January 21st, 2020

The English Patient (Vintage International) By Michael Ondaatje Cover Image
ISBN: 9780679745204
Availability: On Our Shelves Now - Click Title for More Details
Published: Vintage - November 30th, 1993

Cereus Blooms at Night By Shani Mootoo Cover Image
ISBN: 9780802144621
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Grove Press - October 27th, 2009

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine: A Novel By Gail Honeyman Cover Image
ISBN: 9780735220690
Availability: On Our Shelves Now - Click Title for More Details
Published: Penguin Books - June 5th, 2018

Sense and Sensibility By Jane Austen, Ros Ballaster (Introduction by) Cover Image
By Jane Austen, Ros Ballaster (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9780141439662
Availability: On Our Shelves Now - Click Title for More Details
Published: Penguin Classics - April 29th, 2003

The Girl on the Train: A Novel By Paula Hawkins Cover Image
ISBN: 9781594634024
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Riverhead Books - July 12th, 2016

Little Fires Everywhere: A Novel By Celeste Ng Cover Image
ISBN: 9780735224315
Availability: On Our Shelves Now - Click Title for More Details
Published: Penguin Books - May 7th, 2019

Monkey Bridge By Lan Cao Cover Image
By Lan Cao
ISBN: 9780140263619
Availability: Backordered
Published: Penguin Books - June 1st, 1998

The Lotus and the Storm: A Novel By Lan Cao Cover Image
By Lan Cao
Email or call for price
ISBN: 9780143127611
Published: Penguin Books - April 28th, 2015

The House of the Spirits: A Novel By Isabel Allende Cover Image
ISBN: 9781501117015
Availability: On Our Shelves Now - Click Title for More Details
Published: Atria Books - December 15th, 2015