this book is absolutely perfect.
it’s easily one of the best contemporary family dramas i have ever read, and i have read more than a few.
ng’s prose is outstanding, and her characters are vibrant, completely three-dimensional, and the way their stories knot up in each other is superb.
it opens with the death of sixteen-year-old lydia, the beloved middle child of marilyn and james lee. marilyn and james are a mixed-race chinese/caucasian couple living in a small town in ohio in the seventies, where such relationships were still extremely uncommon. in the united states, anti-miscegenation laws were only declared to be unconstitutional by the supreme court in 1967, which is a little mind-boggling, but there it is.
race plays a role in the conflict(s) of the novel, but it’s just one component in what is really a story of family dynamics.
How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers…Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.
marilyn grew up in virginia, the daughter of a home economics teacher who always wore gloves outside the house and whose greatest dream for her daughter was to meet a lot of wonderful Harvard men. marilyn has more ambitious plans – with her scholarship to radcliffe, her ultimate goal is med school, and she excels in her physics and chemistry classes, enduring the condescension of her all-male classmates (which is confusing to me, because in 1955, radcliffe was still an all-female school, as far as i know), in order to achieve her real objective – to end up nothing like her mother.
Late at night, bent over her textbooks while her roommate wound curlers into her hair and patted cold cream onto her cheeks and went to bed, Marilyn sipped double-strength tea and kept awake by picturing herself in a white doctor’s coat, laying a cool hand against a feverish forehead, touching a stethoscope to a patient’s chest. It was the furthest thing she could imagine from her mother’s life, where sewing a neat hem was a laudable accomplishment and removing beet stains from a blouse was cause for celebration. Instead she would blunt pain and stanch bleeding and set bones. She would save lives. Yet in the end it happened just as her mother predicted: she met a man.
the man is james lee – fourth-year graduate student and marilyn’s teacher for “The Cowboy in American Culture,” who is, in the terminology of the day, an Oriental, specifically a Chinaman. after the very first class, marilyn goes to his office and kisses him. and from then on, they’re together. which abruptness seems a little out of left-field, but it makes sense somehow. for her part, she thinks He understands. What it’s like to be different. and he does. and his attraction to her comes from the completely opposite direction: because she had blended in so perfectly, because she had seemed so completely and utterly at home.
james’ father had emigrated to america under a false name, after a ban had been placed on chinese immigrants. james was born in america but he always felt alien. at best a novelty, at worst the object of ridicule and casual racism. self-taught and trying to shed the stain of the immigrant; the shame of being the son of a janitor and a lunch lady, eating his mother’s dumplings in a sea of privileged white faces, james had always been aiming for assimilation. lonely, friendless, unathletic, james has felt “other” his whole life. until america – in the shape of a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman, accepts him – marries him despite the protestations of her mother.
this is probably too much detail tl;dr and all, but i am just so gobsmacked with how perfectly ng has set this family up to be doomed. this is thomas hardy-level cause and effect intricacy. and i’m not going to give too much away, this is just backstory – the real meat hasn’t even been served up yet.
quickly, quickly, because there’s still so much more to celebrate: they have three children, the first of which, nathan, effectively ends marilyn’s career dreams. lydia is the middle child, dead on page one; the daughter each parent has hung their own missed opportunities upon – her father wants her to make friends, to be popular as he never was, and her mother wants her to have the academic success and career she gave up for her family. and then there’s hannah. the youngest; an afterthought, frequently overlooked even when she is in the same room, but the keenest observer, and the only one able to see the big picture.
so the story is manyfold – finding out how lydia ended up at the bottom of a lake – and you will – this isn’t one of those ambiguous endings, but although she is the center of the narrative, by the time all is revealed it almost doesn’t matter. this book is more about character. where the idea of “family” is a character all its own. it’s about the pressures put on children by parents, children wanting to please, parents making assumptions, siblings caught between jealousy and sympathy, infidelity and sacrifice, the poison of the american dream, racial identity, and what happens to a family after their lynchpin is removed.
everything about this book kicked my ass. each and every character had a story that was profound and devastating and i cried like a kitten on fire. which is very rare and always a delicious surprise.
the more i think about this book, the more i love it. so many tiny moments that splintered into my feeling bits. such quiet, understated scenes that are haunting me still.
i cannot believe this is her first book.
and i cannot wait for the next one.
too many feels, etc etc