I’d meant to read this for a while, but somehow ended up reading Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, first. While this one didn’t have quite the same impact as her follow up, it was still a very good novel, and I really enjoyed the complexity she brought to all the characters, their motivations, and how she portrayed how even well meaning actions could have negative and long lasting impacts.
As the novel begins, the Lee family is going through their normal morning routine in the spring of 1977 when Marilyn realizes that her oldest daughter and middle child, Lydia, didn’t sleep in her room the previous night. Two mornings later, the police find Lydia’s body when they drag the lake. With Lydia’s disappearance and death, her parents realize that they didn’t know their popular and brilliant daughter as much as they thought.
From here, the novel explores the events leading up to Lydia’s death, the family dynamics, and relationships, and the aftermath of her death. James and Marilyn met when James was a history graduate student at Harvard, and Marilyn was studying pre-med at Radcliffe. They both see things in the other that they desire, although the things they like in the other are in ways the things they don’t like in themselves. Marilyn’s mother was the home economics teacher at her high school and always tried to push Marilyn into a traditional life style while Marilyn wanted something different and more, excelling in the sciences. James, the child of first generation Chinese immigrants, never had any friends in his private school in the Midwest and was always an outsider. He wants nothing more than to fit in, and in the beautiful and blond Marilyn, he sees someone that always could fit in.
These different goals are seen in the way they raise and approach their children. James wants his children to be popular and have friends, while Marilyn wants Lydia to have all the opportunities she didn’t have as a woman in the 50s, and become the doctor she didn’t. Lydia tries to be the model child while Nath and James butt heads. Hannah is the forgotten third and youngest child, unaware of certain family events that occurred before.
After Lydia dies, the family wants answers. Nath wants someone to blame and direct his anger towards. He thinks it had something to do with Jack, the bad boy of their school and neighborhood, while the police lean towards accident or suicide. Marilyn loses herself in her grief, and James finds other ways of escape. As much as Marilyn and James love each other, they never really discussed some of their underlying insecurities and concerns. They may have given a lot up to enter into an interracial marriage in the mid-1950s but James still fears Marilyn has regrets about him that they have never addressed, and with their daughter dead, some of these issues start to show cracks in their marriage.
It was such a deep and layered novel, and I appreciated how Ng kept going deeper into creating these sympathetic characters that did not quite see each other or understand each other, despite the love they shared. While of course the reader wants answers about what happened to Lydia, Ng writes so well that I would have been perfectly happy simply getting to know the family dynamics without ever getting a clear answer about the night Lydia died.