Literary Pairings: Ng and Grenville

I would like to think that in the present climate of the United States, a brilliant Chinese-American man would not feel so painfully isolated, while a brilliant woman would not have to forego her medical career.

celeste ng
Celeste Ng

We learn from the first sentence of Celeste Ng’s novel Everything I Never Told You that Lydia, the beloved teenage daughter of Marilyn and James, is dead.  We do not, however, know how or why she died.  In order to understand what caused her death, we need to discover not only Lydia’s history, but also the history of her parents—and grandparents, too, for that matter.  As much as we Americans might like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals who create our own identities, our own lives, Ng reminds us that it is not so easy to escape our family histories.  That is true even if we are not aware of them.


Lydia’s father James Lee is the son of impoverished Chinese immigrants who toiled ceaselessly to provide a good education for their son.  Their efforts pay off and James earns a Harvard Ph.D. in American history.  His academic success, however, is overshadowed by his lifelong feelings of isolation; he can never escape his feelings of inadequacy at being friendless, at never fitting in.  Because of these feelings, he desperately wants his children to be popular and feels personally stung when he notes their lack of social acceptance.

Lydia’s mother Marilyn has different yearnings.  She is a lovely, blond, white woman who blends into her landscape seamlessly.  She does not want to blend in, though.  She grew up in the 1950s, when women were bred to be cheerful homemakers.  (The present-day of this novel is set in 1977.) To make matters worse for Marilyn, her mother was a home economics teacher who thought Betty Crocker was a goddess.  Lydia, however, was a brainy woman with scientific leanings.  She fervently wanted to be a medical doctor and was on track to becoming one.  Her plans changed, though, when she became pregnant her junior year of college and dropped out to marry James and raise their children.  As Lydia became older, Marilyn funneled all of her frustrated ambitions into Lydia, determined that Lydia would have the medical career she was unable to achieve herself.

Ng’s portrayal of the mostly pain these characters carry in their hearts is touching and sad.  What makes the pain even worse (from my perspective) is that they remain unspoken.  It seems that Marilyn is unaware of her husband’s profound sense of isolation and intense yearning to fit in.  Conversely, James seems unaware of how unhappy Marilyn is to be living as a housewife instead of as a doctor.  These misunderstandings baffle me to a certain extent.  Do these two people never talk to each other?

It seems significant that Ng chose to set this novel in the late 1970s instead of the present day.  I would like to think that in the present climate of the United States, a brilliant Chinese-American man would not feel so painfully isolated, while a brilliant woman would not have to forego her medical career.  Does that mean the family would be happier overall?  Or would there just be different problems?

The conflicting desires of husband and wife remind me a little bit of the married couple William and Sal Thornhill of The Secret River.  (Click here to see my previous post about it.)  The Secret River is set in the late 1700s, when England sent convicts to what is now the country of Australia.  William was one of those convicts sent to Australia and was accompanied by his wife Sal and their children.  Sal wanted to get out of Australia and back to England as soon as they possibly could and let William know that in no uncertain terms.  He agreed that they would go back in five years.  Sal literally counted off the days until their return.

In the meantime, though, William fell in love with a piece of land and saw in it the beginning of a new future for his family, one in which he could hold his head up high in society, rather than being held down by his class status.  He never wanted to return to England and secretly hoped that Sal would change her mind.  Although Sal was clear on her desires, William was more circumspect about his hopes that she would change her mind.  In the end, William got his way, and the family stayed in Australia.  Sal became resigned to her fate, but I’m not sure how happy she was about it.  I know that Grenville wrote a sequel to The Secret River, but I haven’t read it yet.  I am curious to find out the longer-term repercussions of these basic conflicts between these two strong individuals.

Overall, I loved both of these novels and recommend both of them.

Do you think the problems faced by James and Marilyn are relics of the past?  Or is this story just as likely to occur today? 

What should a couple do when the two people have such strongly divergent basic desires, such as where to live?

For more information on Celeste Ng, click here.

For more information on Kate Grenville, click here.

This is my 1960-1979 entry in my When Are You Reading? challenge.



“The Secret River,” Kate Grenville

“He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him. This was a place, like death, from which men did not return.”

My Australian reading selection for my Around the World Reading Challenge was a real treat:  Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, first published in 2006.


The subject of The Secret River is Australia’s colonial past as a dumping ground for English convicts.  William Thornhill, the main character, is transported to New South Wales in 1806 as his punishment for theft.  Originally, he was sentenced to hang, but he was granted a reprieve and sent to New South Wales for life instead, along with his wife and children.

In 1806, New South Wales is still not much more than a howling wilderness for someone used to the teeming streets of London.  Grenville begins the novel with Thornhill’s first impression of his new home, and his sense of isolation is palpable:

“Now, standing in the great sighing lung of this other place and feeling the dirt chill under his feet, he knew that life was gone.  He might as well have swung at the end of the rope they had measured for him.  This was a place, like death, from which men did not return.  It was a sharp stab like a splinter under a nail: the pain of loss.  He would die here under these alien stars, his bones rot in this cold earth.” (11)

I found this beginning captivating and could not help but read on.  I was not disappointed.  One of Grenville’s gifts as a writer is her ability to recreate times and places in vivid detail.  After the opening chapter in New South Wales, Grenville takes us back to Thornhill’s childhood in the slums of London.  William grew up poor—so poor that he was cold and hungry all the time.  Grenville gives Dickens a run for his money in her ability to recreate the stink and squalor of London.  Not surprisingly, Thornhill turns to thievery as a way to make a living.  Eventually he gets caught, which gets him sent to Australia.

Thornhill’s initial despair at finding himself in such desolate surroundings begins to shift.  He realizes that in this new country, he could escape the taint of class and become someone new—a landowner, one of the gentry.  He sets his sights on a piece of land that seems to promise him this new life and claims it for his own.  He moves his wife and brood of children to this unprotected space with high hopes.

As it turn out, however, this land is far from vacant: aboriginal people have been living there for thousands of years, and they have no intention of moving.  This tension between English settlers and the aboriginal peoples forms the basis for the rest of the narrative.

I highly recommend this book, which was based on the life of one of Grenville’s ancestors.  Grenville is a superb writer who makes history come alive. The characters are complex and realistic, and her portrayal of class and racial tensions is astute.

Her novel makes me want to read more literature from Australia and New Zealand.  Can anyone recommend others to me?