If: You’ve ever lost a loved one and you’re not racist
This is what a (properly-written) grieving novel looks like. Without denigrating Ms. Ng’s incredible voice as a Chinese-American author speaking of her own culture and its concerns, this novel transcends any attempt at cultural pigeon-holing. Her prose is exquisitely crafted. The novel’s structure is perfectly balanced. Ng introduces her characters piecemeal, allowing the reader to become involved on a personal level; you feel as though these characters are your neighbors, or possibly your friends. As Leila, the oldest of three sisters, considers the suicide of her younger sister, Ona, the reader is invited to participate in the grieving process with her. We can feel her disenchantment, her anger, and her feelings of helplessness. As she tries to hold her family together, we are shown why these people matter to her. They are complex, troubled characters like any real human being is, but they are also sympathetically crafted. We want them to be successful. This novel allows and invites any reader of any background to consider the troubling process of grieving. Also under scrutiny is the family dynamic present in many homes where so many disparate personalities are glued together regardless of how they try to separate themselves from each other. This brief review certainly does not do the novel justice, so here’s a brief excerpt (from p. 102):
“After Mah left, Leon suddenly stopped talking about Ona. I thought he’d been happy the last ten days because Mah hadn’t been around reminding him of Ona all the time. I thought he’d forgotten about Ona for a while, I thought that was why he looked so happy, he was drunk with forgetfulness. I thought I’d forgotten: with Mason. Nina thought she’d forgotten, with her new guy. Mah wanted to forget, with her gold mine of gossip. But nobody’d forgotten about Ona.
“And here was proof: Leon’s altar. He’d found a way to live with his grief. I could hear him say, Side by side, the sad with the happy.”
Skip this novel if all you are willing to know about Chinese-American culture comes from a fortune cookie. Skip this novel if you don’t want an authentic interaction with hard truths. But if you feel that reading can help you live a considered life, then don’t pass this one up.