“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 long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. 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.”
On June 26, I showed up at Longfellow Books (my Fiercely Independent Local Bookseller) within 10 minutes of opening to pick up this book as soon as it was released. “I’m so excited, it’s my friend’s first novel!” I told another customer and the store manager. Except… I’ve never met Celeste Ng. We’ve never been in the same room – or the same city, or the same state, for that matter – but we “met” when she somehow found my comments on her Pushcart- winning short story, “Girls, at Play” (which remains one of my all-time favorite short stories). I’ve been following the progress of this novel since then via Twitter, and she’s always been so gracious, natural and generous to me, a total stranger with no literary standing whatsoever, I’ve come to think of her as a friend. So of course, I was excited about her book being published, but also, nervous – what if I didn’t like it?
I should’ve had more faith. It’s a beautiful book, a sad, sweet read, and I enjoyed it greatly.
I put off reading it for a couple of months, because I was dealing with a fresh batch of MOOCs, and I really didn’t want to read it while my head was cluttered with Calculus and Mythology and the French Revolution and Music Theory. I avoided reading the reviews and interviews that scrolled through my Twitter feed (lots of talk about this book), wanting to form my own impressions, even after it showed up on list after list – Boston Globe‘s Summer Reading List, Amazon’s Best Book of July 2014, O Magazine’s “16 Books You Must Pick Up this August”, Vogue‘s “Summer’s Buzziest Beach Reads”, etc. etc. It was worth the wait.
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.
That’s quite a striking opening to a novel. It raises so many questions – Who is Lydia? How, when, why did she die? Do I, the reader, care? Am I sad, relieved, vindicated? – we can’t help but read on. It was also, perhaps, the shortest opening sentence strung from the ceiling at this year’s One Story Literary Debutante ball (Celeste earned her spot at the annual event with “What Passes Over” in Issue #86).
As Celeste explains in her interview with One Story, this wasn’t always the opening line; it took a while to emerge:
That first sentence didn’t click into place until the last draft. Up until then, every draft had begun, “At first they don’t know where Lydia has gone”—a very different tone, one that withholds information rather than revealing it. But I felt that readers needed that information right up front. Otherwise, the focus is on whether Lydia is alive or dead, when what exactly happened—and why—is really the point of the novel. And I liked the bluntness of the opening, that sense of putting the narrative cards right on the table.~~Celeste Ng, Interview with One Story
I love the thoughtfulness of this, the writerly consideration of the impact on readers and the overall purpose of the book. And I love the line.
Celeste told Kate Tuttle of The Boston Globe the inspiration for much of the plot came from a story her husband told her, about a boy pushing his sister into a lake. From there, the Lee family was fleshed out. In a charming video interview with Chris Schluep on Omnivoracious, Celeste talks about the other inspiration, her own childhood in the highly planned suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, including an amusing observation about the town’s fondness for hiding garbage and collecting it with golf-cart sized trucks; it seems this will serve as the central image for a future story. I can’t wait, already.
For me, the book was about the assumptions we make, the secrets we keep, and how we can all drown in the deep lakes they become. Chapter 4 knocked me out by weaving together a network of these assumptions (as Celeste puts it in her interview with Kirkus Review: “… the different ways that people interpret the same conversation or the same event or the same scene”), a web imprisoning the whole family as the narrative dances with the characters: Marilyn, a mother who put her dreams on hold, until, in the wake of her own mother’s death, she discovers a cookbook that becomes for her a symbol of her own wasted life; Lydia, the daughter who, eager to please, takes on the burden of her mother’s ambitions though they don’t mesh with her natural interests and abilities; James, a Chinese-American man so
desperate to fit in, he becomes a history professor specializing in cowboys; Nath, the son who regularly deals with racism at school and can’t tell who’s friend and who’s foe; and Jack, the neighborhood scapegoat bearing the stigma of his working, and divorced, mother. The stage is set for the development of these characters, as they continue to circulate around each other for the next ten years, acting in ways the assumptions and secrets of this scene dictate. Add in Hannah, the “lost child,” born a few years later, who sees all but doesn’t yet have the life experience to understand.
Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling tablecloths, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change.
I found much that felt – something beyond identification with a character, more intense, as if Celeste read my mind, knew my life, and wrote in some things for me personally. Take Hannah’s attempts to make sense of what she sees, or her acceptance of the family code: “Don’t ask questions.” She learned this in the family cauldron; her parents’ adherence to the principle is starkly seen in Marilyn’s reaction to her own mother’s death: “So when James came home that night, she said simply, ‘My mother died.’ Then she turned back to the stove and added, ‘And the lawn needs mowing,’ and he understood: they would not talk about it.” I don’t know why so many of us think not talking about something will make it go away, but we do. My mother died when I was 9; she was never mentioned again, and I thought that meant it was something to be ashamed of. I understand Hannah.
Then there’s Lydia, willing receptacle for her mother’s deferred dreams but unsuited to the role, watching her brother preparing to leave for college, desperately afraid but unable to talk about it directly. So she plays Paul Simon’s “Only Living Boy in New York” over and over. I played the same song for the same reason, along with “Why Don’t You Write Me,” from the same album. I cried when I saw a line from that lyric in chapter 9. Like Lydia, it was the only way I could say, “Don’t go! I will miss you terribly!” since we didn’t talk about things like that. By the way, I uncovered something interesting in the course of googling around for this post (this is why I blog, it’s an excuse to research things I’d never waste time on otherwise): Simon wrote that song when Art Garfunkel (they were early on known as Tom & Jerry, hence the name Tom) flew to Mexico to appear in a movie. Turns out these guys couldn’t talk to each other, either. That may be why the song has such power. And now the book has the same power. This not-talking thing hits a deep chord for a lot of us.
Marilyn had given Lydia her first diary the Christmas she was five, a flowered one with gilt edges and a key lighter than a paper clip. Her daughter had unwrapped it and turned it over in over in her hands, touching the tiny keyhole, as if she didn’t know what it was for. “For writing down your secrets,” Marilyn had said with a smile, and Lydia had smiled back up at her and said, “But Mom, I don’t have any secrets.” … It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can… The first page she sees, April 10, is blank. She checks May 2, the night Lydia disappeared. Nothing. Nothing for May 1, or anything in April, or anything in March. Every page is blank.
I found so much in this book to identify with, I’ve thus far neglected to mention a crucial sub-character: the constant presence of racism. But of course it would be a different book without the interracial marriage between Marilyn and James. A nasty comment made by Marilyn’s mother at their wedding resounds over the decades; James hears echoes of it regularly, along with echoes of a childhood spent being different, and of course it affects him. He doesn’t realize Marilyn’s dissatisfaction with her life has little to do with him, and nothing whatsoever to do with his race. But because no one in this family talks, he’s stuck with his assumptions, she with her secrets. For the entire family, every incident of racism they encounter becomes another confirmation of their fears. Celeste discusses this angle at length in her Code Switch interview with Arun Rath on NPR; it’s a topic that’s never far from the center of American life, but is particularly acute right now.
I felt a beautiful shift in tone in the last chapter, a lifting, a stirring. Maybe it wasn’t even in the text; maybe it’s just what I wanted to feel, following a particularly intense scene. It brought to mind a metaphor: Lydia surfacing instead of drowning, breaking into the air and taking an exuberant breath, a shift from the crushing pressure of the water, imprisonment, darkness, silence, to upward motion, freedom, release, the possibility of healing, even of joy. In looking for an image to express this (another good reason for blogging: looking for strange art) I realized, this is the inverse of the glistening surface of the water seen on the book’s jacket, on the title page. Instead of the surface being still and hiding what is beneath, as the family has for decades, the spirit of Lydia erupts from the water in an effervescent flurry, giving them all a new direction in the final chapter as they come to terms with what their family has become. Hannah’s revelation of a particular symbol begins this shift I felt – she doesn’t explain what it means, he doesn’t understand the significance, but it’s communication of a secret: someone’s talking, someone’s listening, and for this family, that’s a very good start.