Bük Kloob is a series of book reviews loosely related to a book club I started.
Children are alternate universes for their parents. They are dreams come to life, different careers taken, another life lived. A second chance. I told this to my parents growing up and they laughed and laughed but also looked at each other like I had figured something out. My older brother was pushed to be a doctor, I was patted along around a creative world, my younger brother became an army man, and my sister is a rising academic – and I can map how each of us manifests a desire of our parents.
Not everything goes to plan because kids are their own people. They recognize the god in the machine and they push back. They create a different path. They often destroy the machine from the inside out.
This is the core of Celeste Ng’s fabulous 2014 debut Everything I Never Told You. The book details the lives of a Chinese-American family living in a small Ohio town in the 1970s. There’s the father – James Lee – a college professor who is married to Marilyn Lee, a reluctant homemaker who was once pursuing doctoral studies. Her dream was to become a medical professional, a path that was derailed by marriage, family, and other trappings of the American dream.
When the Lees have kids, these dreams become complicated: how can children be our dreams? How can our lives evolve as their lives evolve? When should the hand of the parent stop guiding? This is the foundation for complication as the Lee’s three children – Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah – navigate their own lives within the grips of what their parents want them to be.
Ng also weaves this story in a way where you know what’s going to happen – Lydia’s death – around a swirl of information that lays out life for this family as it were, all the hidden agendas and understandings that were never agreed upon but nevertheless exist. It’s a metaphor for listening, for talking, for caring more than acknowledging.
And it’s handled somewhat breathlessly as Ng has no fat or filters for the goings on of the Lee family. Unlike other mainstream authors like Gillian Flynn, Ng doesn’t offer any twists or turns but, instead, keeps opening doors to her character’s minds so that readers can do the math to realize what exactly is going on in the lives of these characters. You understand Ng’s mission as a storyteller by way of her smartly having readers see a world for what it is instead of psychoanalyzing every aspect of said story.
Many will note the book’s similarities to Ng’s recent success, Little Fires Everywhere. Both books deal with complicated families, stories that starts with endings, and ramifications; however, where Little Fires teaches, Everything I Never does. There is less telling and more doing. Like the children who are told by their parents what they should be, one story is while the other is guided to a place. This is the difference, a trap that Ng defined for herself.
This isn’t to say that these guided works are wrong or bad or inept. Like the child over-watched by a parent, you can tell that there is little thinking on their end until the moment where they question the source. Unfortunately for a book, such questioning can’t occur because it’s a static object in many ways, unliving and unsolved. For Everything I Never Told You, the text did the unthinkable by offering a life and solutions in a very clear why.
Such is the success of this story, of this book: a clear vision without interruption. A purity of being.