Monday, January 19, 2015
The anti-miscegenation laws were found unconstitutional in 1967, so this was a time in America when racism was still ripe and a family composed of a Chinese/American man, a white woman and their three children did not fit anywhere, at least not in a small town in Ohio. This was a time when people of Asian descent were referred to as "Oriental," a term used by Celeste Ng throughout this novel to describe James Lee and his children. This was also a time when men were condescending to women with dreams of a career, and those women often had to choose between a career and having a family because it was not socially acceptable to have both.
The book begins "Lydia was dead. But nobody knew it yet. . . " Lydia was the Lees' middle child, the blue-eyed, most beloved child around whom everything revolved, the vessel holding her parents' combined dreams -- her father's need to blend in, and her mother's long-lost dream of becoming a doctor. With Lydia's death, a family filled with secrets, self-deception, and guilt unravels, and the truth of a small town's bigotry and lack of compassion comes to the surface. Everyone she left behind is affected. The parents who made Lydia responsible for their happiness and made of her the glue that kept them together. Nathan, the often ignored and resentful but loving older brother who became Lydia's source of strength and savior, but who in the end could not save her. Little sister Hannah, the invisible little girl who saw everything but whom no one in the family acknowledged. And Jack, the wild boy across the street whose life is entangled with the Lee's through Lydia and who becomes the focus of Nathan's rage.
This is a quiet, multi-layered story that makes an impact. It focuses on family, the damage that may come of the too-high expectations parents place on their children while children base their "love" on meeting those expectations, love and rivalry between siblings, children caught in the middle, the effects of racism and misogyny, racial identity, love, infidelity, and so much more. It is a story that digs into each and every character and the motivation behind their actions. There are no stones left unturned and all is revealed, including what happens to Lydia.
I thought long and hard about these characters, this story, after I finished the book: about history and the high price so many people of color, immigrants, and their children have paid while reaching for the undeniably alluring and often unreachable "American dream," the price we as women have paid (and still pay) on our long journey forward, as well as the damage parents can, unknowingly and thoughtlessly, inflict on their children. This is a beautifully written, thought-provoking debut by Celeste Ng. Highly recommended.