The Short Version: Lydia is dead, but her family doesn’t know it just yet. When they do find out, though, the Lees begin to uncover all sorts of other secrets that they’ve all kept from one another – and realise the difficulty of keeping your own life healthy while supporting the lives of others.
The Review: So I listened to this as an audiobook, for So Many Damn Books reasons, and I say this up front because I think it affected my experience of the book significantly. I might’ve been a little more forgiving, brought a little more into the story, had I read the book at my own pace with my own twist on the characters, etc.
Unfortunately, the audiobook is just not a great one: it is a slow read, just turgid. I had to take it up to a full 2x to feel like it was something close to the speed at which I would be reading a book – but of course, at 2x, you’re getting some clipping and stuff, which isn’t terribly pleasant. But the reader brought no true pulse to this story and, for better or worse, that’s how I encountered the tale.
But the whole thing is set up to disappoint, in some ways. The novel kicks off like a thriller would: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” Right away, there are questions, there is this looming dread, and in the post-Gone Girl age, readers are always looking for that next adrenaline fix. So when, about a third of the way into the novel, you begin to realize that this isn’t a thriller but rather a tragedy… the moment of recalibration is disappointing. Ms. Ng wanted to write what she wanted to write and that’s fine – but the novel’s jacket copy (and even some of the reviews) set up an expectation that it could never live up to, simply because it is not that kind of book.
So what kind of book is it? Well, it ends up being a rather quiet meditation on the way families mess themselves up. We see Marilyn and James Lee and the three kids living in suburban Ohio in the 70s and things are a little rough for them. James is Chinese, so there’s the mixed-marriage angle – something many still don’t approve of – and Marilyn has, her whole life, tried to rebel against the construct of the female role at that time in America. As a result, they’re always a little on-defense with their marriage and their kids bear the brunt of it. Lydia, the middle child and eldest daughter, is pushed to be popular, to be a scientist, to live out the dreams that both parents failed to achieve – while Nath, the eldest, is somehow doomed to live in his sister’s shadow no matter how great his successes. Hannah, the youngest, is an afterthought in every way.
And so here we have these characters who… well, frankly, they feel like they’re in a fishbowl and the author is watching them and recording their behavior. There is something detached about her presence, even as we feel it intensely, hovering over everything. There is something visibly constructed about this novel and it frankly felt aggravating. It becomes clear rather quickly that the problems that the family has some problems – but so many of them felt like the characters were being stupid or selfish for no clear reason other than that they were being authorially led down that road. Marilyn’s strength in persevering through classes of misogynist assholes makes less sense in the light of her marriage to James, where she just up and leaves him with two kids and no warning to go take summer classes to finish her degree? She couldn’t have, I don’t know, talked to him about it? I understand some of the kids’ perspectives, at least: they act the way they do because their parents are forcing lives on them that they don’t want. But even the parents’ forcing felt rote, like exactly the cliche you’d expect when you ask about parents forcing something on their children.
A Goodreads review by another ToB fanatic and fellow intelligent reader Emily says better than I ever could my other problem with the story: the language is quite often SO clunky. The metaphors are cringe-worthy at times and characters speak in stock dialogue far too often to feel anything like “real” – and as such, I just never got into the book. It isn’t bad, by any means, and Ng does do some great work digging into the personal lives of these characters… but she lets herself down by presenting everything as rote and like something created in a lab. An ordinary story can be fine but the circumstances conspired against this one, for me.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5. Smack in the middle of things. This isn’t a bad book, by any means, but you have to go in with the right expectations: it’s a meditation on family and loss, not a thriller. The audiobook is deadly-slow going. And the writing feels, more often than not, like the author is scientifically observing her characters inside a fishbowl and forcing them to do things in order to provoke the plot. None of this makes for a bad book, just a meh one. I thought it was just fine.