“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”
So begins a book about a family with an absence at its heart—that of the oldest daughter who dies just before her 16th birthday. Although there is a mystery to her death, this is not a whodunit. It’s a story about a family, flawed in the way families are, trying to make sense of the world around them.
To her parents, Marilyn and James, Lydia was everything they weren’t. James is Chinese-American, living in a small town in Ohio, where at the time, he was the only “oriental”. He desperately wants to fit in and be like everyone else. Like his blonde, blue-eyed wife, Marilyn. But Marilyn is also a misfit in her way: she had ambitious about becoming a doctor at a time when women doctors were thin on the ground. Children and marriage put an end to those ambitions. So both parents pour all their thwarted dreams onto Lydia without stopping to think what Lydia really wants.
There is another absence in this book—the absence of any real attempt to truly understand the people who are the closest. James and Marilyn both imagine Lydia to be popular at school, brilliant in physics, when she is neither of those things. She plays up to them, and both parents so desperately want her to live their dreams that they never stop to see who she really is. They don’t see the two younger children, Nath and Hannah, either: both are so focused on Lydia that they neglect them. Nath and Lydia are close in age, and they form a bond, but once Nath gets into Harvard, he is focused completely upon leaving and neglects his sister. Hannah, the youngest, is a watchful, quiet child, who is often far more perceptive than the adults.
This is a beautifully written book. Celeste Ng has a deep understanding of human nature, and the way people are so caught up in their own narratives that they only see others through those narratives. It takes a catastrophe for them to realize that each one of them has a life and personality of their own. But I got the feeling at the end that they will try harder with each other but that a lot of things that should be said won’t ever be. And maybe that is the proof of writing fully rounded characters—you wonder what happens to them after the story is done.