This novel begins like a literary thriller, a page turner, opening with these lines: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” It is Tuesday, May 3, 1977 and the family is having breakfast as usual, but Lydia is late. When Marilyn, the mother, finally checks her daughter’s room, it is empty. The bed hasn’t even been slept in, so her parents are quickly overwhelmed with worry. They call the police. By the end of the chapter, we learn that the nearby lake has been dragged and Lydia’s body has been found. Of course, we want to know what happened, but in chapter two, we start getting the backstory.
Marilyn and James are a middle-class couple with three children. James teaches American culture at the University and Marilyn is a stay at home mom. The only thing different about this family is the fact that James is Chinese-American. The fact that he specializes in American culture shows how much he has tried to assimilate, but this is never stated explicitly. As Celeste Ng explores everything that the family members have left unsaid, racism is revealed to be a force that has shaped this family. This is America in the 1970s and Chinese-Americans are not seen as an identifiable part of middle America. Other forces also exert pressure on the family. Because Marilyn has given up her childhood dream of becoming a doctor, she places the burden of realizing her dream on her daughter. Expectations become a crushing weight, especially when no one can express their frustration or assert what it is they themselves want. All that remains unsaid does not evaporate into the air and disappear; rather it pollutes the family environment and finally, with the death of Lydia, proves toxic.
The writing and structure of the novel makes this very clear although at times the narrative seems formulaic. However, toward the end, the novel gathers strength when the family members finally explode, no longer able to bear the excruciating loss of their favourite child. Initially, the family members withdraw into themselves and isolate. When they finally breakdown, they are able to reach out to each other and connect as a family, possibly for the very first time. By the end, the novel becomes a genuinely affecting portrait of a dysfunctional family that finally manages to come together. It is a notable book. Considering this is Ng’s first novel, she shows much promise. This is definitely a worthwhile read.