The year is 1976. The Lee family is the only Chinese — or, well, half-Chinese — family in their small Ohio town. And for unknown reasons, Lydia, the family’s 16-year-old middle daughter, has just been discovered in the bottom of the town lake.
In Celeste Ng’s slim novel, the backbone of a death isn’t suspense or who-dun-it. Rather, the story is held together by intricate, deep-seeded family dynamics of miscommunication and good intentions gone awry.
That’s because the how of Lydia’s death is tragic, but not much of a surprise. The why — that’s the interesting part. And it’s not just Lydia’s “why,” but her parents’ and her siblings’. In this story, each family member is equally important in shaping the circumstances for Lydia’s death. In a narrative arc that jumps back and forth in time, exploring important moments in each of the characters’ formation, Ng lets the reader in on each characters’ secret yearnings that dictate their choices. The mother who wanted to become a doctor, and is constantly disappointed by her accidental pregnancy that derailed her plans. The father, the son of Chinese immigrants, who wanted more than anything to fit in — and exerts that same desire on his children. The older son, whose dreams of astrophysics (and his whole personality!) are overlooked by his parents, who are focused on Lydia, their favorite. Lydia, who forges a mask of a personalty under the weight of her parents’ expectation. And Hannah, the youngest daughter, who takes to surreptitiously collecting her family’s possessions because they don’t really notice her.
“The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you–whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.”
The catch to such well constructed characters? Each member of the Lee family has a distinct history and personality that dictates all of their actions. While this means the plot flows swimmingly — aka each action makes complete sense, given their history — it also meant that I didn’t buy it. Yes: is was a beautifully, achingly written book. In lyrical prose, it portrayed the pressures of being different and the repercussion of inter-racial relationships — two subjects I can relate to especially. But I also imagined Ng’s characters swerving along a clear-cut track, entirely blinded to the needs of their family members, existing in a bubble. In every instance real-life people could have had a conversation and explained their inner lives, Ng’s characters repress, ignore, pretend. In other words, they felt like characters — not real people.
Maybe I just have too high expectations for people’s communication skills. Maybe the Lee family, each with their hidden lives, is really what many families are like (I acknowledge not everyone has a loud Mediterranean family like I do). But I couldn’t help but think: all of this could have been avoided by a few key conversations. And hey, maybe that’s the point of the book.
While I thought the characters behaved in mechanically cruel way at times, that’s not to say I don’t recommend the book. I totally recommend the book. A family is made up of the same story told through many different lenses. In this book, we see the fractals, the way the life of one person is changed utterly by another. And we see this great tragedy: our intentions, once received, are sometimes stripped of their goodness. Without proper communication, our good intentions can go sour, punch people in the stomach, push girls (inadvertently — I’m not giving anything away!) into lakes.