"It's only words, and words are all I have, to take your heart away." —Bee Gees
I tend to reserve my five-star ratings for books which are so impactful that I know they will be memorable. After some time the details of the story or the characters may escape me, but I will most likely remember how I felt when I read them. In a few years I will look back and remember that this book hurt me.
I had read Celeste Ng's second novel Little Fires Everywhere earlier this year, and while that one is also very good, I enjoyed this one even better (a painful sort of enjoyment). Unlike Fires which has several families and subplots, this book is more focused and centers only around one interracial family, back in the 1970s when Asian-Americans were still referred to as "Orientals". Lydia, the Lee family's favorite child, has died mysteriously, and her parents and siblings are trying to understand the reasons and grappling with the consequences.
The novel concerns itself with a number of issues including racism, gender bias, parental favoritism, and the dangers of trying to fulfill your dreams through your children. Ultimately it's about complex family dynamics, about family members who have things they never tell each other (don't we all?). And despite seemingly good intentions sometimes the things they do say hurt one another.
Ng is a great storyteller, and just like in Fires she deals with everyone's points of view very well. But she especially excels at writing the children's parts, without making this seem like a YA book. She brings to life the teens and kids whose childhood experiences—how their parents treat them at home, what they face everyday at school and at the playground—influence them psychologically and leave a mark on them for their rest of their lives. I had my own interpretation of Lydia's ending at first, but after reading a few discussion questions I understand that it can also be seen in several other ways. I think Ng intended it to be vague so readers can draw their own conclusions.
The book can be frustrating to read because it's so emotional (sometimes heavy-handedly so), but that's also why it's memorable for me. It's one of those novels which goes straight to the heart.