Celeste Ng has written a book about family members who genuinely love one another, but nevertheless manage to do terrible harm to one another. This would seem to be very fertile territory indeed, but somehow the book lacks emotional impact. The Lees are a “mixed” family. The father is born in the US of Chinese immigrant parents, graduates from Harvard, and becomes a history professor at a small college in Ohio. His wife Marilyn is a blue-eyed American girl who drops out of college to marry him. Her attraction to him remains inexplicable as he is consistently portrayed as nervous and insecure. Their children, Nath, Lydia, and Hannah, find it incredibly difficult to fit in and make friends in their small Ohio town in the 1970s. I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be a minority in America, but I lived through the 70s in a small town, and honestly, I don’t recall people pulling their eyes into a squint every single time they spotted an Asian person. Yes, racism existed then and still exists today, but I would be much more moved by the family’s plight if it were portrayed in a more subtle, realistic way. The father in obsessively concerned with his kids’ popularity (because he was excluded as a kid) while the mother is excessively concerned with her daughter’s academic success (because she dropped out of college and became a housewife). All this is certainly plausible, but it’s SO obvious, yet the parents themselves seem totally unaware of what they’re doing, and the kids never utter one word of protest.
Stylistically, the book falls flat because it doesn’t have a strong protagonist. The point of view shifts constantly from one character to the next, even within a single scene. This used to be considered the sign of a hack writer, but the author has an MFA, so I have to assume that this is the new hipster technique among the literary crowd. Yes, we’re able to see “reality” from every perspective, but the end result is that the story doesn’t seem to belong to anyone. When Lydia dies (not a spoiler) we get to experience each character’s agonizing as he or she tries to figure out why and how Lydia ended up in the bottom of the lake. Although Lydia is the center of everyone’s attention, she’s hardly a heroine. She comes across as sad and foolish, but not tragic.
The book wasn’t bad, just meh.