This is a strange little book – ubiquitous in the circles I walk in (i.e. circles made up of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Green Apple, and a half a dozen small local bookstores) and appearing often on shelves devoted to “staff picks.” I’ve been intrigued but ultimately rejected it five or six times, only caving when I passed right by it in the school library and figured that checking it out would be a low-risk way of testing its waters. Though readable enough, this novel is noteworthy in the fact that all of its characters seem made of cardboard. In addition, the author’s odd choice of a very wide-ranging omniscient point of view undermines the suspense that the author seems to be trying hard to create. And this book manages all of the above without actually sucking. Intrigued? Read on.
This novel is about the Lee family: James, lonely son of Chinese immigrants, history professor, desperate to fit into American society; Marilyn, James’ Caucasian wife and frustrated housewife; Nath, their personality-free teenaged son; Lydia, their daughter, who – as the novel’s first sentence tells us – is dead; and oft-ignored youngest daughter Hannah, who knows everything. The novel is about the changes wrought upon the Lees when Lydia dies, although because so much of the novel takes place in backstory it is also about the past experiences of the five family members – the early lives of James and Marilyn and the lives their children have led at school that they have concealed from their parents.
At the outset, we are told that Lydia is dead, but all James and Marilyn know is that she is missing. They call the police and an investigation begins. We are told early on that Marilyn “disappeared” herself once, ten years ago, and that James, Marilyn, and Nath are all thinking (but not speaking) of that event as the search for Lydia begins. As we bounce between the inner lives of all of the key characters, including Lydia, we learn that Marilyn was the daughter of a home ec teacher and that she grew up determined not to be a housewife. She enrolled at Radcliffe, where she was studying to become a doctor but, on a lark, took a course on the cowboy (the lonely, solitary, long-suffering cowboy) in American history and culture, taught by a new Harvard instructor named James Lee. They kiss, fall in love, and get married, and when Harvard denies James tenure they move to a suburban Ohio town, where, as a multiracial family, they qualify as the local freakshow. Marilyn gets pregnant and does not resume her pre-med studies. Soon Nath is born, and Lydia arrives a year later.
I forgot to mention that this novel takes place in the seventies – making the domestic-heartache plot more plausible than it would have been otherwise. The problem is that it never feels like the seventies. Every so often bell bottoms are mentioned, and each time I stopped and said, “What??” At the same time, the novel doesn’t feel contemporary either, nor does it feel targeted to any other decade in recent history. This novel is separate from time, bare-bones, generic. This could be a deliberate move on the part of the author – an attempt to make the book seem timeless – and I have no doubt that it will work. However, the side effect of this technique is that the novel seems sterile, as if its characters are acting out their familial tableau on another planet somewhere.
Marilyn never loses her desire to be a doctor, and when her mother dies and she spends a week sorting through all of her possessions, she decides to abandon her husband and two children. With the money from the sale of her mother’s house, she rents an apartment in Toledo (of all places!) and enrolls in science classes at a community college. She never contacts James or the children, and James for his part never calls the police or takes definitive moves to locate Marilyn. This is how James operates: he’s a burrower. As a child he dealt with the embarrassment of being the only Asian student at his school and also the son of the school’s janitor by putting his head down and becoming a superior student, and he deals with Marilyn’s departure in the same way. At the same time, he parks the children in front of the TV full-time and keeps their routine in a holding pattern, as if he doesn’t feel qualified or ready to impose order on their lives without Marilyn. When Marilyn does return, all of the members of the family treat her return with the same blasé acceptance that they treated her departure. Well – all of them except for Lydia.
Lydia makes a silent promise on the day her mother returns: she will do every single thing her mother ever wants her to do. She develops almost a superstition about her fear of displeasing her mother. So for the next ten years, she puts up with the fact that her mother – who has now given up hope of being a doctor herself – is determined to make sure Lydia becomes a doctor. Lydia does everything she is told, but she secretly hates science and math and often has to cheat in order to get the grades her mother wants to see. After Lydia disappears, her mother’s slow excavation of Lydia’s room, which parallels Marilyn’s earlier excavation of her mother’s house, reveals all the hidden evidence that Lydia hated science and longed for a different kind of life.
This book puts its author in a difficult conundrum. The usual rule in writing fiction is “show, don’t tell.” But what does one do if one’s characters are the type who never, ever tell anyone anything? “Show, don’t tell” doesn’t work in this novel, so the author was forced into long passages of backstory that made me feel as if I was being preached to a little bit. Yes, get it, I kept thinking. Given the limitations of the challenge Celeste Ng set up for herself, though, I think this novel succeeds relatively well. I never lost interest in the novel, though I was disappointed by the ending (think Edna Pontellier in bell bottoms) and was glad when it was over. I haven’t told you much here about Nath (who is boring) and Hannah (who is not boring – if any character could have functioned as a first-person or third-limited narrator for the novel, it is Hannah – but who gets limited stage time, unfortunately. This novel is harmless and engaging and fluffy enough for a plane trip or beach vacation.