I can’t remember the last time I read two books by the same author back to back…probably college, I suppose. It can be a surprisingly insightful exercise, particularly as I’m
overthinking planning how to write my own novel(la). I recently finished both of Celeste Ng’s works, Everything I Never Told You (EINTY) and Little Fires Everywhere (LFE). While I found many similarities, the two stories are still refreshingly different. Here are my thoughts, with some very mild spoilers.
Both books start with a shocking, tragic event that the reader thinks will be the main plot point. Ng uses that event to unwind dozens of smaller stories and secrets. She then circles back to the tragedy at the end of the book without a particularly tidy ending. These books are not classic mysteries, but by opening the stories with a drowning (EINTY) or house fire (LFE), Ng infuses suspense throughout the entire novel because the reader knows something awful is going to happen eventually.
Seemingly normal families populate both stories. The Lees in EINTY are a mixed race family, with the somewhat unusual twist that the father, James, is Chinese American, and the mother, Marilyn, is white American. (WMAF relationships are more commonly depicted – and argued about – than WFAM relationships.) The Richardsons in LFE are a white family living in the planned community of Shaker Heights, where Ng grew up. If it weren’t for the opening tragedy in each story, both central families might seem too pedestrian to bother with. But, as in real life, everyone is hiding secrets.
Both books feature free-spirited women who nevertheless cannot escape societal expectations. Marilyn in EINTY wants to be the opposite of her homemaker mother, but is forced to defer and eventually give up her dream of going to medical school. Elena Richardson returns to Shaker Heights after college and settles into a comfortable suburban newspaper beat while her classmates go on to bigger cities and stories. Her tenant (and narrative foil) Mia Wright, on the other hand, is a single mother and itinerant artist who challenges Elena’s belief in order and security.
Secrecy is perhaps the most salient theme in both books. All the parents seem oblivious to the untold inner lives of their children. (This seems preposterous to me right now as the parent of a preschooler who tells me – everything – but I know that will change in just a few years.) Another prevailing theme is the cascade of consequences that comes from and causes secrets within families.
Parents and Children
The relationship between parents and children plays a major role in both books, and amplifies the themes of secrecy and unintended consequences. In EINTY, the parents’ favoritism toward their middle child is born from their own frustrated dreams. This causes many problems for all three of their children, finally (or firstly) resulting in Lydia’s death. In LFE, Elena Richardson’s anxiety over her youngest daughter Lexie’s premature birth magnifies over the years into anger and dislike. Eventually, through a long chain of events, this dynamic causes Lexie to set her family home on fire.
Race and Culture
As an Asian American Ohio native myself, I appreciated Ng’s eerily accurate depiction of Midwestern sensibilities regarding race and culture. In LFE, when a white couple faces questioning about adopting a Chinese American baby (whose birth mother is fighting for custody), they rattle off a stilted list of ways they are exposing the baby to “her culture”: cooking Chinese food, buying her a stuffed panda instead of a “regular” teddy bear, reading her a “Chinese” picture book with stereotyped drawings of Chinese people. In EINTY, the Lees are a mixed race family in a time and place where such families were uncommon and often looked down on. Racism, both casual and explicit, colors their entire lives.
But just as these books are not mysteries per se, neither are they stories strictly about race and culture. Rather, the characters’ experience of race and culture works its way through the plot like a pinch of yeast leavens an entire batch of dough.
Celeste Ng is a master storyteller, and I learned a lot, particularly about theme, from reading her work. I highly recommend both Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere.