I read this book a second time because I couldn't remember why I liked it. But I had this warm feeling about the first book I ever read set in the foreground of the Vietnam War. 'The Quiet American' predates America's direct involvement in the war and focuses on the years of the 1950's when France was still making "headway".
I wish I had notes from the first time I read the book. I am quite certain that I didn't blame the main character for the outcome at the end. However, upon this second read, I feel like as a reader, I became involved. I felt myself urging him to do this or not to do that. He, of course, proceeded without paying heed to any of my advice. Without giving away the ending, I'm sure that when I read it the first time I felt that his actions were justified because of what he want to pursue, that the ends did, in fact, justify the means.
I'm not so sure now. This second reading made me focus on the treatment of the female character, Phuong and how neither men really loved her, nor did she really love either man. She was 18 and first, the mistress of the Fowler: British journalist, mid-40's, married, but in love, as much as he can be, with Phuong. Enter Pyle: American special ops desk guy before there were special ops desk guys. He's naive about war, and presumptuous about American power. His mistake, his mistaken trust, has a serious consequence. He is certain he loves Phuong, wants to bring her back to the U.S. and make a whole life for them there, but just after the tide of the war turns away from Communism.
There are two real stories being told her: one is a love story, sort of, between 3 people and the other is a story about war, and one's place within it. It should be read; it must be read. It is, in it's own way, a story about the loss of innocence in two ways. Pyle's loss, as though he is a child, growing into adolescence, and really seeing that the world has a lot of bad in it, or at least, about to see that the world is full of evil. The other loss of innocence is when Fowler becomes engaged, and is not longer a spectator in a war that has nothing to do with him. From this point, he can never go back to being just a journalist, and the consequences of this loss will be far greater than what Pyle might suffer.
Phuong is a flat character, and if she has any dynamic qualities, they are hidden by the characteristics of the two men, although I do not find this a misogynistic piece, but rather, scraping against harmony in the way one would expect a woman to feel and act. In that, the story feels hollow, but this is the only exception to a truly exceptional story.