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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Thursday, January 1, 2015

Not Gone Girl: a novel about a girl's disappearance that's not a thriller

Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng's somewhat awkwardly titled debut novel, appears from first several chapters to be a story of thee generations of sad and screwed-up women and the legacy of sorrow passed down through this family: grandmother a prim and conservative home-ec teacher in Virginia, left by her husband to raise daughter alone in the 1950s; daughter highly intelligent and somewhat rebellious (wants to take shop instead of her mother's required home-ec course), goes off to Radcliffe where mother proudly expects her to meet a nice Harvard man, she falls for her grad-student instructor, an Asian-American man of very humble background; they marry when she becomes pregnant, and never see the mother again; beset by latent and overt prejudices against an Asia-American, he settles for a teaching post in a small Ohio college, and that's where they building their life. This is the back story. More in the foreground - 1977, I think is the date she set - the parents have three children, the oldest, son Nath, headed for Harvard. The center of the novel is the sudden disappearance of middle child, a moody and serious teen who vanishes in the night. Ng writes very well, very lucid and straightforward prose, but for whatever reason she is determined to not make this a novel of suspense and mystery (i.e., this is not Gone Girl): she opens the first chapter with the bone-in-throat statement that, though the family doesn't know this yet, their daughter is dead. Then she takes us through the first day or so in which the parents call the police, who suspect daughter has run away for the night and will return. But Ng puts in all the clues we need to piece the disappearance together - her lack of friends, her relationship with the boy next door who's a troubled kid (her parents, incredibly, don't even suspect this relationship and her older brother, who's aware of it, rather amazingly doesn't bring this up during the frantic search for his sister), the deep pond in town, the fact that she cannot swim - in other words, we know way, way more than the character do and therefore watch them as if they're lab specimens. One bombshell Ng drops is the fact that the mother at one time had run away herself - and was gone long enough to draw the police into the matter - so we'll be looking at a whole family pathology over the course of the novel - maybe for even more than 3 generations, as it seems unlikely she will set the whole story in the 1970s (especially with the death discovered at the end of the first chapter).

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