**spoiler alert** *****I want to say up front that this is an essay on having read this novel, and not your typical review. If you think this kind of**spoiler alert** *****I want to say up front that this is an essay on having read this novel, and not your typical review. If you think this kind of thing is dumb, that's fine for you but this means a great deal to me so please don't bitch at me for not talking enough about this amazing novel. I'm not here for that.*****
I am excited about the trip, but still I am angry. Taking my children home is important to me, but this is not just a homecoming. It is a fact finding mission. One I resent having to make.
We fly on Tuesday and are in Target on Saturday to find things to entertain the children on the plane. The youngest gets activity books and the oldest gets novels. I am not getting anything because I already have three non-fiction titles packed away. I don't expect to actually read them, of course. After all, this is traveling with children.
It is also traveling with purpose. No matter how much I am looking forward to seeing relatives I haven't seen for over a decade, I know what waits for me on Thursday. We're touring what is effectively our family cemetery, looking at a plot sort of near our dearly departed to see if we want to place Mom's ashes there. Eight urns can fit in the plot. I've already decided it would be comforting to me to know where my remains would go after my death, so this would be my plot too. Me and mom in the ground together, whenever that would be. It feels weird to think of it, but there you have it.
Funeral arrangements are never a vacation.
I don't even know what kind of funeral arrangements we're looking for, to tell you the truth. Mom never gave us instructions.
“Just do whatever makes the most sense to you,” she told me over and over again. I am terrified of this phrase. She never actually means it.
I am angry at Mom, livid that she gave us absolutely no ideas on what to do with her remains. But I am going to make this as pleasant as possible, and not only for the children. I have been homesick in earnest every single day for at least the past four years – since Mom died. I weep for my Koʻolaus at least once a week. And now, here I am. Buying coloring books to keep my daughter busy on the plane.
I tell my son he is buying two books I've selected and he is arguing with me. This is how it always goes with us. I read the back to see if the plot would be remotely interesting to him and then read a few pages in the beginning and in the middle to see if the writing is engaging. His style, so to speak. I've rejected six or seven titles already and have found one that is a definite yes. Another most likely yes. I tell him I'm getting them both and he groans. He doesn't want reading. He is just here to tell me that none of these titles are good enough and he needs to go a few aisles down to electronics instead.
I say no, this is what you're getting, and walk out of the YA book aisle, towards the childrens' books because maybe there is something there exactly right for my young daughter. A slender novel falls off a shelf and lands on my foot, and I laugh because I actually was frightened for a moment. I pick the book up off the floor and reach to put it back on the shelf, only there is no place for it. It doesn't belong in this section.
I look at the cover again, read the title and the author: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. I remember seeing mention of it in my social media channels and being deeply intrigued. I peek at the first pages and put the book in my cart. I guess I am getting something for myself after all.
I read the first chapter that night, immediately inserted into the Lee family's anxiety. The prose is crisp, easy. Pulling, really. Driving. I realize I am turning the pages faster and faster as the night goes on. I don't want to but I pack the book away, saving the rest for the plane.
Once we're in the air and my son turns on his laptop, I open the book again. The novel, Ng's debut, is a powerful read about a mixed-race family and their struggles to live a "normal" life in their small 1970s Ohio town. The tragedy of the middle daughter's drowning is laid out in the opening line and the entire book centers around this unchangeable, devastating fact. The question of who Lydia actually was during her short, apparently complicated life quickly becomes the thrilling whodunnit of this deeply personal look into one family's relationship with themselves and their community. The layers of truth about togetherness, separateness, and secrecy are revealed in how each character operates within the confines of this very tightly knit mixed-race family.
I suddenly find myself delighted, giddy almost. I look back at the cover for a second and realize I accidentally bought a book that has me positioned squarely inside its target audience.
Being mixed-race and growing up in a racially diverse place such as Hawaiʻi makes the story of the Lee family seem all at once familiar and foreign to me. I understand inherently the complications of a family coming together and splitting apart in very different ways and with very different agendas. I feel that I know Lydia's parents and their opposing ideas about quiet assimilation and assertion of differences. Small, nuanced sentences detailing the conflict of trying to find a place in the world leave me feeling both sorrowful and understood. I weep at many passages, finding in the book a deep resonance with so many of the lessons I learned as a child.
What isn't familiar is the concept of growing up mixed-race in a small town that just doesn't know how to deal with "Orientals". (The term is used throughout the book, which I know is meant to be jarring to our current sensibilities. After all, Oriental was the acceptable term back then and I need to remember this story is not set in the present. It is set in different, perhaps more...complicated era, which gives Ng's characters a more complicated stage for their drama.)
In Hawaiʻi, pretty much everybody is mixed something. I think back to goofy competitions with classmates in which whoever was the most mixed (could claim the most different ancestries) won. I couldn't conceive of a place where we would be the "other" so to speak. Moving to the Northwest from Hawaiʻi and finally learning about these kinds of differences made me realize how blessed I was to grow up part Hawaiian in in (some of) my ancestors' homeland. And reading this book as an adult gives me much to think about the differences between now and the 1970s of my youth. Of Lydia's youth.
Lydia's struggle to perform for her parents is deeply familiar to me. I know too well the desire to be a good enough daughter to keep your mother from disappearing yet again. It is terrifying and it is confusing, and it can be so, so damaging. But most of all, it cannot be done. Living someone else's version of your ideal life is an impossible journey and many of us paddle away from shore just trying to find the courage to find our own way. Many of us do not make it.
My own mother disappeared on us regularly, and while she didn't engage in Marilyn Lee's meticulously planned, secret flight to finish medical school, her icy silences could last weeks. Whenever I was deprived of her motherly sunshine, I felt bereft, clingy, and utterly insecure. Like Lydia, I would promise my mother anything, agree to anything, in order to coax from her the gift of her company. But unlike Lydia, I wasn't ever able to keep my promises. I failed my mother early and often, pushing her away again and again. Or so that's how it seemed to my pre-adolescent mind. I believed, and still sometimes do, that I earned my mother's silent treatment through the undeniable truth of my inadequacy.
I remember my years of small, irrational rebellions against the notion of perfection, when the relationship between me and my mother vacillated between strained and explosive. I deeply cared about her opinion of me and tried in vain to be good enough in her eyes. But whenever I faltered (and I faltered often), she withdrew from me again. Chilled by both my mother's absence and my knowledge that I would always be wrong no matter how hard I tried, I engaged in angry, destructive behaviors as if to prove exactly how much I did not care.
Of course, this was never actually the case.
There may have been no winning with my mother, but she was laid back in comparison to some of my friends' mothers. I know very well many girls who could have been Lydia. Who tried everything they could to walk the paths laid out before them. To do what was not just good, but perfect. I know even more who rejected the very thought of meeting their parents' ideas of perfection, seeing it for the trap it was.
Watching Lydia have this same kind of epiphany, become determined to have her own little rebellion is heartbreaking. I knew from the beginning how her story would end, but it was a mere data point in those long ago pages. By the time I reach the end of her point of view chapters, I know Lydia. I know the terrifying abandonment she has suffered and is preparing to suffer as her brother's departure for college looms. I understand the bizarre compulsion that leads her to the lake of her undoing. I feel how mixed-up she is; how literally misguided. This is her first delirious attempt at doing something completely her way, and she is lost for it. And all of it, the whole entire gut-wrench of a novel, is there to show us exactly how her entire family and the world around them helped this tragedy occur.
I am angry at the Lee family on behalf of Lydia. I am angry at Ohio on behalf of the Lees. I read another passage about fitting in, about trying to find one's place in the whole shitstorm of racist, sexist, America and I tuck the book back into the seat pocket. I wipe my eyes again and wonder how many times I've had to do so while reading this small, quick little read. All of them, I laugh to myself. I have cried exactly all of the times.
I open the book again. I only have a few pages left to read and we're not even halfway to Hawaiʻi. I look over at my son, who is reading the definite yes book I bought for him at Target. I ask him how it is and he tells me it's the best book he's read in a long time. I tear up at this too, knowing that I chose that title because it seemed like the kind of book he likes to read, not the kind of book I think he should read.
I am grateful, I think. Absolutely relieved. I finish the book and cry again. I think about my appointment at the cemetery on Thursday. I think about Mom. I am still angry. Resentful that my sister and I have to decide where she should rest, when every decision we've ever made left her sullen, withdrawn. There is no way to do this right, I told my sister once while planned this trip back home. No way for us to know what she might have actually wanted.
I think back to Lydia, the way she died just on the cusp of the life she was going to live for her. I think of my mother's silence. I realize, as if for the first time that my mother is dead. That there truly is no way to know what she would have wanted. What kind of funeral, what place of final resting, would have made her happy. I realize that my mother knew this trip was not for her, but for me. We'll rest her where we think is best, and we will do our best to honor our decision. It's the very last thing we will ever be able to do for her, and she won't even be there to see it.
Mom is gone, and we are here. This is our call and there are no wrong answers. We will do our best without asking her approval, because finally, finally, it doesn't matter. We'll never know if Mom would have approved or not because she isn't able to. She is gone. Her icy silence has turned to mere quiet, and we are the ones left to decide how to go on. ...more
I borrowed this book from the library and could not bring myself to finish it before it was due. I didn't feel that it was worth renewing or purchasinI borrowed this book from the library and could not bring myself to finish it before it was due. I didn't feel that it was worth renewing or purchasing since I just could not get invested in the story. And I really ought to have been invested! I am Kanaka Maoli and grew up in Hawaii. I learned a lot about the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and some of my family members are active in the Sovereignty movement. What I am trying to say is that I wanted so much to love this book and am disappointed that I did not.
However, it should be noted that I am not the target audience for this novel. The target audience seems to be non-Hawaiians or those with less interest in or knowledge of Hawaiian history. Perhaps readers who are simply looking for historical fiction would be able to connect to the characters in ways that I could not.
It's not as if this novel is just poorly written. The author is definitely accomplished, but there were certain details that were not incorporated into the novel, and these details completely disrupted any suspension of disbelief that I was trying really hard to maintain. (I call it "finding the penny".)
The detail that made me return this book to the library rather than renew it or purchase it to add to my collection, was the absence of two critical parts of ʻŌlelo Hawaiʻi (Hawaiian language). The kahakō (macron) is placed above vowels to lengthen the sound of the vowel, which can completely change the meaning of a word. The ʻokina is a Hawaiian language consonant that looks like a backwards apostrophe (sort of) and indicates a glottal stop. This also completely changed the pronunciation, and therefore the meaning, of a word.
For example, the protagonist Laura is given the nickname of "Malolo" by David, a Native Hawaiian associated with the royal family. This made me alternately roll with laughter and roll my eyes with impatience, because I figured David was actually saying Mālolo, which means flying fish. (There is some great description of a flying fish that lands on the deck of the ship Laura takes to Hawaii, and I assumed that this was the author trying to use foreshadowing or other literary shenanigans to add more dazzle to the Laura / David sequences). However, the word malolo without the kahakō over the first a means either to rest or low, as in a tide. We call my teenage son "low tide" when he hasn't showered. Okay, so I know that's just a personal aside and that could definitely have been ignored if it wasn't the fact that Malolo is the name of a sugary drink syrup sold in Hawaii. We used to drink that because we couldn't afford actual juice. Also another personal aside, but hey. We read books personally don't we?
Maybe the kahakō was removed during printing and if that is the case then this is the fault of the publisher and not the author. Still, it should be noted.
Like I said, it was the that might not even register to other readers. BUT, these are big details to me. I am generally really thrilled that this book exists, because I LOVE seeing books about Hawaii and Hawaiian people. I seek them out aggressively and want to think really highly of any book about my homeland, so it is always a little disappointing to find one that just doesn't sit right.
There were character and storyline factors that kept me from enjoying this novel, so I guess my inability to finish this book, and this one star review, isn't only due to my pedantic ʻŌlelo issues. The writing was at times poetic and stirring, but other passages were extremely distant and reserved. I could not get a "handle" on any of the characters, save the seamstress that appears only in the beginning of the novel. I thought the beginning scene between the seamstress and the protagonist was one of the best one in the part of the novel I read. And when the royal family was introduced, I just couldn't get "into" them. And these are people I have revered since childhood! What a shame. Perhaps it would have gotten better, but I just could not bring myself to find out. And I am super bummed out about that.
I am only giving this book a one star because I did not finish it. I didn't think the passages I did read were only one star passages, and most likely the rest of the book isn't actually a one star book. But this (kind of stubborn) reader gave up on this story, so one star it is. If I ever finish the book in the future and change my mind, I'll let you know....more
I both adored this book and was completely frustrated by this book. I made my sister read it just so we could dish about all of the things we found prI both adored this book and was completely frustrated by this book. I made my sister read it just so we could dish about all of the things we found problematic. There was a lot of dishing to do, though we agreed that we were very happy to have read it. The fact that it was a quick read really helped.
I haven't read nearly enough books set in an intimately authentic Hawaii, especially where the characters speak pidgin. Lately, have been on a kind of a mission to add more Hawaii dialect to my literary diet, which is how this book made its way into my hands. I am desperately seeking a book that speaks to my native sensibilities; one written by a local author for a local audience. I was hoping that this book could be one of them. It both was, and wasn't. I am both okay, and totally not okay with that.
Spencer Fuji, the narrator, is Japanese instead of my Native Hawaiian, but that wasn't a barrier for me. The barrier came in the first few paragraphs when I realized that the author was going to explain certain things about Hawaii and her cultures, especially foods, that I felt the narrator shouldn't be explaining. Or, at least, I felt the explanations highlighted the overarching problems that I found in the rest of the story.
Here's an example, from paragraph three:
"Of the two, the box is more important. It holds pistachio nuts from my recent Las Vegas trip, kalua pig and cinnamon bread from Oahu fundraisers, and the pork-filled buns we call manapua that my mother likes."
Using the words "we call manapua" let me know that this book wasn't written for me and people like me; people from and of Hawaii that understand her cultural references. This book is written by someone attempting first to understand and then explain these references to someone who knows them even less. I am not the target audience. An outsider interested in, admiring, and perhaps even fetishizing Hawaii culture is the target audience. And that was a significant disappointment.
Another disappointment was the way the author handled dialogue. Pidgin English is such a vibrant, lilting dialect and while I could "hear" some of the lilt in the characters' conversations, much of it felt flat on the page. I understand that the conversations between son and his dying mother may not be very energetic, but even the dialogue set in the past, with younger characters, seemed...stale? Not quite. But definitely not satisfying. Perhaps this seems pedantic, but with how little dialects in general and Pidgin English in particular are represented in art and media, I think it is important to voice concerns and critiques. So there is mine.
With that being said, the writing is lush and often immersive, the characters genuinely interesting and believably human. Some of the scenes had me truly laughing out loud. Others found me quietly fighting back tears. The story is familiar and has a feeling of realness to it that honestly did help me get over my native dissatisfaction. When we met the Native Hawaiian serviceman who pretended to be Buddhist so that he could get off base one day a week, I laughed uproariously. That is something my dad completely would have done. I very much appreciated that inclusion.
In the end, I think this book is a gem.
Even with all of its imperfections, I would, and will, read it again. You should, too. And then let me know what you think, so we can talk story all about it. ...more