When I duck into the bookstore before Celeste Ng’s talk, I feel conspicuously literary. The Wordsmith Bookstore is in San Francisco’s historic and grungy Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The attendees are mostly University of San Francisco MFA students—vibrant, leaning forward in their seats, just older than me. (Later during Ng’s talk, I notice that the MFA students punctuate her poignant lines with a low “mmh,” as if they were verbally underlining sentences.) On top of it all, I’m wearing a black faux-leather jacket that looks like it reads Allen Ginsberg poetry whenever I’m not inhabiting it.
I’m here because I have just read Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You in a breathless sitting, then found out that she would be giving her talk about and reading from her latest novel, Little Fires Everywhere in San Francisco.
As I found out during the talk, both of Ng’s novels are grounded heavily in where Ng herself came from. Ng grew up in a Chinese American family in Ohio. She describes her suburban hometown as inclusive the point of self-consciousness. On the surface, one saw manicured lawns, cordial neighbors. But behind closed doors, there resided the kind of shame that motivated the desperate desire for perfection, the kind of desire that compelled the residents to keep their trash cans behind their houses, away from the open street, and have garbage collectors surreptitiously pick it up and carry it away.
Everything I Never Told You opens with a sense of perfect suburban calm, violently destabilized: “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.”
A family’s favorite daughter, Lydia—sixteen, beautiful, academically accomplished—is found drowned in a lake. The police turn up little concrete evidence as to the circumstances of Lydia’s death. The answers, Ng suggests with masterfully interwoven flash-backs, are engulfed in the family’s carefully concealed past.
As the investigation of Lydia’s death unfolds, Ng masterfully weaves between 1977 and the past that precedes it like a long shadow. She sheds an inquisitive light on Lydia’s family, beginning from the moment that her parents met at Harvard. From here, the reader collects shreds of “evidence.” In 1955, we meet Lydia’s mother Marilyn, determined to flout gender expectations and to become a doctor. (“Not a nurse?” a male college advisor asked her.) Her father, James, the son of Chinese immigrants who has sought to belong his entire life, who only finds this sense of belonging and validation with Marilyn.
Later, we meet Lydia’s siblings: Her older brother Nat, protective but distanced from his parents. Hannah, the youngest, a silent observer. And at last, Lydia herself—who she was, who she was believed to be, and what she hid.
The pace of the novel is both breathless and slow-burning. Ng, writing in multiple timelines, maintains reveals pivotal events in family history one by one. She keeps the reader absorbed, searching for clues in every glance. The answers to Lydia’s death live in long-simmering tensions between mothers and daughters, fraught misunderstandings between fathers and sons.
Just after Lydia’s funeral, Marilyn steals into her daughter’s bedroom: “It still smells like Lydia. Not just the powdery flowers of her perfume, or the clean scent of shampoo on her pillowcase, or the trace of cigarette smoke—Karen smokes, Lydia had explained when Marilyn sniffed suspiciously one day. It gets all on my clothes and books and everything. No, when Marilyn breathes in deep, she can smell Lydia herself under all those surface layers, the sour-sweet smell of her skin.”
The objects of appearance, of sight and smelling, comfort a grieving mother. Yet as the novel progresses, each of these objects—a pillowcase, a book, a photograph—are recast in the less flattering light of the past. The entire novel, as the title demonstrates, concerns the contradictions of appearance. It speaks to our inherent skepticism of superficial surfaces (they’re fragile, they’re facades, etc.), as well as the powerful desire to maintain them. Like a perfectly manicured suburban street that conceals its garbage cans, we hide our messes behind the simplicity that appearances afford. Sometimes, we even will ourselves to believe them.
Is Everything I Never Told You a murder mystery novel? In the end, there is no sensation or Poirot-like flourish. (I didn’t see the “big reveal” coming at all, and it still broke my heart.) There is only the crushing accumulation of small, long-ago heartbreaks that resolve themselves into a single tragedy: death, the lake, the beloved girl.
Have you read any of Celeste Ng’s novels? I haven’t read Little Fires Everywhere yet, but it’s up there on the list. What are you reading, and what’s on your list?