An Asian American Family

Everything I Never Told You     Celeste Ng     (2014) 

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Celeste Ng’s 2018 novel, Little Fires Everywhere, made my list of the best of that year. I checked out Ng’s 2014 offering, Everything I Never Told You, to get more of her deep probing of complex family issues, and I was not disappointed.  

The first words of Everything I Never Told You are “Lydia is dead,” so it’s no spoiler for me to tell you that the death of sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee is the central mystery of the novel, which is set primarily in 1977 in a small college town in northwestern Ohio. The narrative line zigs and zags, back and forth in time, tracing the lead-up to the death of Lydia and, in the process, uncovering the backgrounds and personalities of the other members of her immediate family.  

Lydia’s father, James Lee, is a professor of history at the local college. The Chinese American James has struggled against bigotry throughout his life, and the ante is upped when he marries Marilyn, an undergraduate he meets in 1957 when he’s a graduate student at Harvard. Marilyn, with her honey-colored hair and blue eyes, has battled discrimination and bullying as a woman trying to make a career in science. Her plans to become a physician are scuttled when she gets pregnant, marries James, and drops out of Radcliffe. As a bored stay-at-home mother, she finds a focus for her considerable intellect in grooming daughter Lydia for medical school, even though Lydia doesn’t have the interest or ability that Marilyn assumes. Lydia’s older brother, Nath, is pretty much ignored by the family as he quietly applies to and is accepted by Harvard to pursue his passion for aeronautics. And Lydia’s younger sister, Hannah, hiding under tables and around corners, observes much but is dismissed as irrelevant by the rest of the family.

As the title of the novel lays out clearly, the Lee family members don’t open their hearts to each other. James pushes his biracial children toward conformity, wanting them to fit in even though they look different from everyone else in town. (“. . . different has always been a brand on his forehead, blazoned there between the eyes. It has tinted his entire life, this word; it has left its smudgy fingerprints on everything.” [251]) Marilyn is mostly able to hide her anguish about her abandoned career, but at a high price. Lydia’s siblings do what they can to support each other, but Nath in particular longs to escape the backwater where he was raised. Novelist Ng takes readers behind the scenes, reconstructing the months leading up to Lydia’s death as well as the months afterwards. The Lees are all stupefied by their grief, but each family member’s reaction to Lydia’s death is unique. The inability of the Lee family to discuss racism and sex discrimination is a microcosm of society’s struggles on these topics. 

When I finished reading Everything I Never Told You, I wanted to hug James and Marilyn and Nath and Hannah and tell them that they are good people who will survive the tragedy of losing Lydia. I wanted to gently encourage them to talk to each other more. I wanted to know how the rest of their lives played out. Obviously, these fictional characters came fully alive for me, testifying to the skill of Celeste Ng. Her intimate family story is sad and poignant and yet glimmering with hope.

Two from the Bascombe Tetralogy

The Lay of the Land     Richard Ford     (2006)

Let Me Be Frank With You     Richard Ford     (2014)

These books are the third and fourth in Richard Ford’s tetralogy that follows the adult life of the character Frank Bascombe. Some background:

  • In the first novel of the series, The Sportswriter (1986), Frank is deep in grief over the death of his young son and his subsequent divorce from his wife. Although he had wanted to write fiction, he’s turned to writing about sports to support himself.
  • In Ford’s second offering, Independence Day (1995), Frank has changed careers and is selling real estate in New Jersey. This novel, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, is set at the titular American holiday.
  • Holiday celebrations, which often cause simmering family tensions to boil over, figure prominently in all four books about Frank. An Easter dinner is a key scene in The Sportswriter, and the two books that I’m reviewing here are set at Thanksgiving (The Lay of the Land) and during the Christmas season (Let Me Be Frank With You).
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In The Lay of the Land, the political backdrop is the contested presidential election of 2000, which was still not decided by Thanksgiving of that year, so tension and accusation and fear are in the air. As always, Ford’s focus is on Frank Bascombe’s inner life, narrated in first person. Speaking to his adult daughter, Clarissa, Frank says, “I’ll commit suicide before I keep a fucking diary. Diaries are for weaklings and old queer professors. Which I’m not.” (240) And yet this entire novel is like a very detailed, highly reflective diary. Frank is now fifty-five and married to his second wife, Sally Caldwell. He’s recently been treated for prostate cancer at the Mayo Clinic. You might find Frank’s trips to the toilet tiresome, but his need to empty his bladder frequently is a constant reminder of the threat of death that hangs over him.

He calls this phase of his life “the Permanent Period—no fear of future, life not ruinable, the past generalized to a pleasant pinkish blur.” (249) There’s a fatalism to Frank’s categorization of late middle age in this way. He’s still selling real estate, though he does have occasional regrets about giving up his dream of writing fiction. He rationalizes: “Realtors share a basic industry with novelists, who make up importance from life-run-rampant just by choosing, changing and telling. Realtors make importance by selling, which is better-paying than the novelist’s deal and probably not as hard to do well.” (84)

The Lay of the Land is expansive, exhilarating, and sometimes exhausting. It’s the work of an accomplished prose stylist who gives us a view into an ordinary life on ordinary and non-so-ordinary days. The exquisite specificity with which Frank describes his surroundings contrasts with his inability to connect with some people. These people are sometimes fairly conventional—like Sally—and sometimes quite unusual—like the Tibetan Buddhist with the Americanized name, Mike Mahoney, “a five-foot-three-inch, forty-three-year-old realty dynamo” (14) who works for Frank’s real estate office on the Jersey Shore.                                 

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The theme of Frank’s relationships is developed further in the most recent volume of the tetralogy, Let Me Be Frank With You, four linked short stories in which Frank Bascombe meets with four different people from his past. The year 2012 is coming to an end, and New Jersey is reeling from the October onslaught of Hurricane Sandy. All around him is destruction, but Frank has survived that cancer diagnosis so far, and in retirement he’s withdrawn more into himself. “For months now—and this may seem strange at my late moment of life (sixty-eight)—I’ve been trying to jettison as many friends as I can, and am frankly surprised more people don’t do it as a simple and practical means of achieving well-earned, late-in-the-game clarity. Lived life, especially once you hit adulthood, is always a matter of superfluity leading on to less-ness.” (187) He provides a summation of how he sees his own character: “. . . a man who doesn’t lie (or rarely), who presumes nothing from the past, who takes the high, optimistic road (when available), who doesn’t envision the future, who streamlines his utterances (no embellishments), and in all instances acts nice.” (140-41) Well, Frank may think he’s always “nice,” but readers can catch him in some unkind deeds.

I found Let Me Be Frank With You less masterful than The Lay of the Land, and I noted a few discontinuities, such as Sally’s birthday moving from summer to near Christmas. Still, Ford’s trademark particularization pulls you in, letting you gape at the damage wrought by the hurricane (and by the previous collapse of the real estate market in 2008), letting you linger on the inevitable wrinkles in the aging faces of the characters.

The Frank Bascombe tetralogy is by turns hilarious and devastatingly serious, honest and deceptive, reflecting the life of one American man—and a slice of American history.

A Reunion Romance

Miss You     Kate Eberlen     (2016)

Reunion Romances: You may not know the category name, but you’ve probably read one at some point. In a Reunion Romance, the two protagonists are not attracted to each other at their first meeting or are somehow thwarted in romance. They meet again at a later time—often years later—and then really hit it off romantically. Sometimes the protagonists meet several times before realizing how suited they are to each other. The tension in Reunion Romances arises from seeing the diverging paths of the protagonists and then watching those paths converge.

In Miss You, Kate Eberlen offers a Reunion Romance with a twist: the two protagonists, Tess and Gus, don’t actually meet until the very end of the novel. Well, they do see each other in passing many times over a period of about sixteen years, and through odd coincidences, they just miss meeting a couple more times. Anticipating and then spotting their meetings is kind of like watching Alfred Hitchcock’s brief background appearances in each of his films.

Eberlen has constructed, in effect, two separate coming-of-age novels, one about Tess and one about Gus, that link after 400 pages. In August 1997, when Tess is eighteen, she takes a European backpack vacation with a friend before she’s scheduled to start at university in London in the fall. Gus, who is also eighteen and also heading to university, is in Italy with his parents, and all three are still grieving from the recent death of Gus’s older brother. In Florence, Tess and Gus run into each other at tourist spots (a basilica, a gelateria) and exchange a few words, but they never introduce themselves. That’s it. Neither one remembers or thinks about the other for many years, although they meet or almost meet several more times.

In Miss You, the individual stories of Tess and Gus, each presented in first-person narrative, are well developed. Both characters face frustrations in achieving the goals they’ve set for themselves in life. Tess has to give up her plans for university when her mother dies, leaving Tess to care for her younger sister, who has Asperger’s Syndrome. Gus, living in the shadow of his deceased brother, is pushed into studying medicine when he’d have preferred a career in the arts. Over time, Tess and Gus both have relationships with other people, but those relationships never quite work out.

Eberlen gives us full pictures of Tess and Gus, especially as they deal with the ongoing sadness of losing a close family member. And their sadness is not the same: Tess loved her mother dearly, whereas Gus was constantly bullied by his brother. The secondary characters, some of whom are doozies, come to life as well. The backdrop of London is lovingly described in many passages. Here’s one, with Tess narrating:  “No movie I’ve seen captures London’s variety: the serene elegance of the white stucco buildings; the improbable red-brick Christmas cake of the Royal Albert Hall, golden Albert glinting in the sunshine; horses galloping on Rotten Row; crazy swimmers diving into the Serpentine; and, near Hyde Park Corner . . . gardens with luscious herbaceous borders and pergolas of roses, planted and tended for no other reason than to give people color to look at.” (352)

Miss You is a fun read that would be especially good to take on vacation or on a long plane trip. Sure, there are a few contrived plot elements. For example, in a city with more than eight million inhabitants, it’s not likely that Tess and Gus would end up living on the same street. But that’s the stuff of Reunion Romance! By the middle of the book I was rooting for Tess and Gus, who are kindhearted and generous people, hoping that they would find happiness.