I may be late to jump on the bandwagon praising Celeste Ng’s second novel, but it’s a skillfully crafted, absorbing read. She writes from the unique perspective of the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong who came to the US, both parents pursuing and earning doctorates. Ng wanted to explore “what it is like to feel in between two different cultures, to have to negotiate that gap.” As that experience becomes more common, it helps to have a wise navigator’s insights.
Ng starts with a fire that destroys a wealthy family’s mansion, set by their youngest daughter. At the beginning, it seems implausible, unfathomable: why?? By the end, it seems perfectly logical: the clues or little sparks have been planted carefully throughout. Three intertwining stories make up the plot: complex, but easily accessible and seamlessly interwoven.
Perhaps the most heart-breaking sub-plot raises the question of adoption. Does a Chinese child belong with her birth mother, despite her mistakes and poverty, or with an affluent couple, desperate for children, who can meet every material need? That question seques into the larger one of motherhood: several relationships portray different styles. The anxious, controlling mom whose primary concern is for rules, order and perfection, loses her daughter in the end. That daughter is drawn to another mom who flaunts the rules, and cherishes her own daughter through an unconventional life as a vagabond artist. The reader is left reflecting whether anyone can ultimately control what matters most.
The setting itself contributes: Shaker Heights, OH, where the author grew up, so precisely planned that unsightly trash cans are never placed on the street, but concealed behind the homes and discreetly picked up out of sight. The novel is filled with such rich metaphors for the human condition.
Ng quotes novelist Ian McEwan: “Imagining what it is like to be someone other than yourself is at the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality.” At a time when some people seem to have closed the shutters on the experience of others, it’s refreshing to read Ng’s thanks to her readers: “who have taken the great risk of stepping into another person’s mind and experience and letting it change them; who have allowed their minds to be open to another point of view, even if only for the space of a book.” And readers are grateful to her for graciously opening that door into another world.