I read this book by Celeste Ng for my book club, and after the discussion, I was reminded why I joined a book club in the first place.
First of all, the opening line of the book can’t be beat: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”
Way to start off with a bang, huh?
The book largely deals with Lydia’s family dealing with her death, but it includes flashbacks to before her death, and even to how her parents got together. When I was a few pages in, I thought, “Oh, great, another book about a dead girl.” My interest waned after that, but only temporarily. This book is just too good to be ignored.
It’s about much more than one girl’s death. Taking place in the 1970s, the book covers everything from racism to sexism to familial and societal expectations and how all those things affect and shape us.
Lydia’s father, James, is a Chinese immigrant who moved to America with his parents when he was very young. Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, is a white woman who was raised by a single mother who teaches Home Economics and only ever wanted the Betty Crocker lifestyle for herself and daughter. Why she wanted it so bad is unclear, given the fact that Marilyn’s father abandoned them, leaving her to raise and support their daughter on her own. The woman who home cooked every meal and never came downstairs without lipstick on was abandoned by the one person she was going through all that effort for. Shouldn’t that have told her something?
But it didn’t and Marilyn rebelled. She wanted to be a doctor and she worked her butt off to make it happen. When she was in college, she met James, the professor of one of her classes. They had an affair, she got pregnant, and they had a shotgun wedding (which is not the same as a loveless wedding. There’s definitely a lot of love between these two). Marilyn told herself she could go back to school when the child was older, she figured in about eight years.
They had the kid (Nathan/Nath), had a second kid (Lydia), and after eight years of marriage, Marilyn simply left. She didn’t tell her family where she was going. She just packed up her stuff and drove out to another school where she resumed the pursuit of her medical degree. Only to find out she was pregnant again.
When she passed out and ended up in the hospital, the nurse called her husband who brought her home about two months after she had left.
To say this had an effect on her kids is an understatement. While she was away, young Lydia found her mother’s Betty Crocker cookbook (which had originally been her mother’s cookbook). Seeing the underlined sections and the tear stains, Lydia correctly guessed the book had something to do with her mother leaving, so she hid it in her room and told her mother she had lost it. Her mother took this as a sign that Lydia was just like her, so she set about making Lydia the woman she could never have been. She constantly bought her books about science and medicine and pioneering women. She signed her up for extra summer and college courses in science.
When Marilyn was gone, Lydia promised that, if her mother ever came back, she would do everything her mother asked of her. She would do everything she could to make her happy so she wouldn’t leave again. So when Marilyn asked Lydia if she wanted to study medicine and become a doctor, Lydia could see how much it meant to her mother and didn’t have the heart to say no.
At sixteen, Lydia is miserable because her mom is forcing her to take all these classes she hates and her father assumes she’s a social butterfly, even though no one wants to hang out with her because her family is the only Asian family in town and this is the 1970s. Lydia has never learned to swim, but she decided to go out on the lake by their house, all alone, in the middle of the night. She figured everything started to go wrong after she and her brother went to the lake nine years earlier and he pulled her out, so she thinks, if she can go back to that, she can start over. She vows to tell her parents what she really does and does not want out of life once she gets home.
Lydia remembers her brother telling her to kick when he pulled her out of the water. Floating in a little rowboat in the middle of the lake, Lydia looks at the dock, decides it’s not so far, and steps into the lake, apparently with every intention of swimming to the dock.
By the time Ng revealed what Lydia was thinking as she got into the water (which she doesn’t do until towards the end of the book), I had been convinced she had intentionally committed suicide. That the weight of her parents’ expectations was too much for her and she had seen only one way out. I didn’t know how someone who doesn’t know how to swim could step into the middle of a deep body of water, all alone, without the intention to die, but I suppose we all do things that don’t make sense.
One of the other members of my book club called it a mental break and another pointed out that, just when Lydia thought she could free herself from all her constraints, she found she couldn’t: just like her mother. And this is why I joined a book club: to talk about books with people who are smarter than I am.
Someone else pointed out that a recurring theme throughout the book was when the narrator said a character wanted to say XYZ, but didn’t. There’s certainly a lot that Lydia never told her family, but she’s far from the only one who’s not communicating. By the end of the book, though, I think everyone (except for Lydia, of course) has gotten to say the things they really needed to say, which allows them to move forward in ways they couldn’t before. I’d like to say the book ended with them in a better place than they started, but then someone asked if I was saying that means Lydia’s family is better off without her. Yeesh.
I think it’s also worth noting that the very last scene of the book takes place in the lake. In the same place where Nath lost his sister, he seems to have come to terms with his sister’s death. He’s accepted that their neighbor, Jack, had no part in it, and he has a new relationship with his other sister.
What did you guys read this week? Anything that turned out to be about something other than what you had first thought? I want to hear all about it!