by Celeste Ng
It is 1977, a spring morning in a small college town in Ohio, and sixteen-year old Lydia does not come downstairs to breakfast. Her place is set as usual, with her homework laid neatly beside her place setting, with careful tick marks made by her mother, noting corrections Lydia needs to make on her math assignment. What her family will learn two days later is that Lydia will never come down to breakfast again, nor will she ever do another math assignment. She is dead – drowned in the nearby lake, and along with her, all of her parents’ hopes and dreams.
Lydia, the middle of three children and the most beloved, was brilliant and planned to be a doctor. She was poised, popular, smart, and ambitious – everything her parents wanted for her. Except that it was all a lie.
James, Lydia’s father, a Chinese American born in California and raised in Ohio by immigrant parents, never fit in. The only Chinese boy in a sea of white faces growing up, he was friendless, embarrassed by his parents, and acutely aware of always being an outsider.
Marilyn, Lydia’s mother, was a blonde, blue-eyed beauty raised by a mother who wanted nothing more for her daughter than to see her married, living in a “matchbox house with a picket fence,” raising children and baking pies straight out of her Betty Crocker cookbook. Only Marilyn wanted more for herself – she felt suffocated by her mother’s small ambitions for her, by her mother’s small life. Marilyn wanted to be a doctor – in a time when women becoming doctors was nearly unheard of.
James and Marilyn’s lives come together, and in choosing to make a life together during a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in many parts of the country, they have little understanding of the implications. The dreams they both harbor are waylaid – until Lydia comes along, and they transfer all of their hopes and ambitions onto her young shoulders. Lydia, who only wants to make her parents happy, embraces their plans and dreams for her – but slowly, slowly, they weigh her down and erode her sense of self until she self-destructs.
While race is definitely a crucial aspect to this story, it’s almost secondary to the real issues in this tautly written debut novel. More than anything, forces us to ask the question: is what we want for our children for them, or for us? This is a cautionary tale about what can happen when parents live vicariously through their children, when the well-intentioned plans and dreams parents have for their children tip the scale between love and destruction.
The only problem I have with the story is that the characters seemed not quite human enough. Frail and flawed, yes, but I was struck by how restrained the family’s grief was. There is almost no crying over Lydia’s death – anger and bewilderment, yes, and a determination on each family member’s part to uncover the truth of what happened to Lydia that fateful night – but the lack of actual tears seemed unrealistic. Aside from that, I have no criticism of this book. It’s a deftly written page turner that speaks of very relevant issues.