Monday, May 20, 2019

Everything I Never Told You - by Celeste Ng

Lydia Lee has a lot of pressure on her. Her mother (Marilyn) wants her to be a doctor (a dream she did not fulfill herself) and her Chinese-American father (James) wants her to be popular and to fit in (a dream he never realized). When their daughter's body is discovered at the bottom of  Middlewood Lake the Lees must come to grips with her death. The omniscient narrator gives the reader insight into each of the other members of the family and their histories, as well  as Jack, a classmate, and a person of interest in Lydia's disappearance. Readers eventually know for sure what happened. The Lees, however, are never convinced.

The story takes place during the late spring and summer of 1977. A time when Nath Lee, Lydia's older brother, is looking forward to starting Harvard. Harvard played an important role in the Lee family history; it is where Marilyn and James met in 1957 (in the history department which "had the peaceful quiet of a library"); and it was where James, notoriously, did not get hired once he earned his Ph.D.

Just before his sister's death Nath visited the Harvard campus where he
wandered awestruck, trying to take it all in: the fluted pillars of the enormous library, the red brick of the buildings against the bright green of the lawns, the sweet chalk smell that lingered in each lecture hall.
It is clear that James also remains in awe of Harvard. And that perhaps his son's acceptance is a vindication for him.

James' upbringing in Iowa, where he was the only person of Asian descent at the elite boarding school where his parents worked as a groundskeeper and kitchen worker made him long to be like everyone else. He surprised everyone at Lloyd Academy by passing the admission test, which allowed him to attend the school for free as the child of employees. He had no trouble answering the exam questions having learned so much from reading "all the books his father had bought, a nickel a bag, at library book sales."

Nath also took advantage of the library growing up. As a child he managed to get the librarian to allow him to borrow books from the adult section, and remained engrossed in learning about outer space, physics, and flight mechanics throughout his high school years.

And, finally, on a non-library note I feel compelled, as the wife of a geographer, to snark about this bit of undeserved Harvard fascination:

James' teaching assistant Louisa is less than impressed with some of the responses she found on student exams and tells him
I hope the summer students will be better... A few people insisted that that the Cape-to-Cairo Railroad was in Europe. For college students, they have surprising trouble with geography.
To which James responds:
Well, this isn't Harvard, that's for sure.
Except that it appears that where geography is concerned Middlewood College may indeed be able to hold a candle to our friends in Cambridge. Harvard, in fact, infamously got rid of its Geography department in 1948 when University President, and homophobe, James Conant declared geography "not an academic department".

This YouTube video give us some insight about the current state of geographic understanding at Harvard.

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