I read each of these books while traveling, so I’m never sure how accurate my reviews are when I’m thrilled to be distracted by a book through an entire flight. I started with Everything I Never Told You, which I purchased on a friend’s recommendation. I read it while traveling to and from New York–on the plane and throughout all the waiting for various modes of transportation. Reading this effectively blocked out all noise and distraction–not because it’s a mystery but because Ng’s characters are so interesting. While the story does start kind of like a psycho thriller (“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast”), it’s the character development that drew me in. From Lydia’s outward appearance of obedient Chinese daughter to her mother’s internal struggle with a “dream deferred” to her father’s desire for acceptance in a white world, they all struggle with very real issues. At times, it may have seemed a bit overly dramatized, but for the most part, I felt for every character, especially Lydia who cannot help that she is an everyday reminder of her parents’ regrets, no matter how much she studies. As a teacher, I feel like I get her.
A few weeks later, I picked up Little Fires Everywhere looking for another travel read. And for that purpose, I wasn’t disappointed, though the character development and storyline were not as compelling. Centered again around family/family struggles/sibling relationships, this story takes place in the affluent Shaker Heights suburb of Cleveland in the 80s (or 70’s), juxtaposing the struggling artist single mom and her daughter against the wealthy three kid, two parent ‘perfect’ family that’s essentially dysfunctional. As the two families converge, the kids become intertwined (sometimes literally), and while Pearl and Izzy are certainly the most interesting characters, at times even they feel a little predictable or a little two dimensional. The writing is not at the level of Ng’s first book, but for a travel read or a summer read, it’s a good one. There’s enough that works so well, we can’t help but see ourselves/our children/our students in these characters–we cannot help but wonder what we might do and how me might act and react to their situations. So, if nothing else, it propels us to look inward and ask some tricky questions. these are both worthy works of fiction.