I’m behind the crowd, having just finished Celeste Ng’s (pronounced Ing) first novel, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU. My plan was to move on to LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, her new novel, having queued them both on my Kindle at the same time. That’s not happening. Yet.
The truth is. I am ruined. Ruined in the a way that TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD ruined me at a very young age. Ruined by the scarring beauty of life. And family. Ruined by Ng’s patient passion in telling the story of the Lee family. Ruined by the understanding, again, that there is so much that I can’t understand, without working at it, about growing up Black, or Chinese, or Hispanic in America. Ruined by being reminded, again, that we are all struggling with love.
Scores of reviewers, more literary and more accomplished than I, have given Ng her due accolades. What I have is my own experience as a reader. I set whatever I might know about writing and composition aside when I realize that I am paging through greatness. In honesty, my not-so-inner critic gets livid over unnecessary prose and tiring plotting. Not the case with Ng, though I had my doubts at first because I thought I knew where I was being taken. Somewhere into the first quarter of the book, the title took on reality. What was it she “never told” me?
In those early pages, I disconnected and connected over a story artifact: Marilyn’s copy of her mother’s Betty Crocker Cookbook, taped at the spine, annotated by her mother. The book, an uncomfortable artifact in Ng’s novel, is a real artifact in my life. I have my mother’s 1950 era Betty Crocker cookbook, taped at the spine. It’s the source of many recipes that she made, I still make, and I passed on to my daughters–pie and peach cobbler and the heavy sweets that remind me of family meals. The annotations in my copy are my own. Slight changes made or stars to remind me which is my favorite. Our family chocolate birthday cake comes from those pages. So, maybe a little defensively, I wanted to not care about Ng’s positioning of the book.
I wouldn’t care that Marilyn and James Lee married outside their cultures. I would care, but not be shocked, that Lydia took her own life. Or that siblings felt unevenly treated. All those pieces didn’t matter. Until they did. In Ng’s telling, layering the story like a fine oil painting, I found I did care. And then I cared more than I ever expected. And I was ruined.
I set aside my Kindle and knew that I couldn’t read anything else until the story had settled in my heart, next to stories, including my own personal ones, that have led me to understand the incomprehensible. And the cookbook–mine is mine and I saw that, as much as the Marilyn Lee fought her history, it’s her story. As for the rest, yes we struggle to be more, don’t we? We swim and sink in our sadness. And if we are able, we hug those around us and know they came into our lives for a reason.