Books

the story behind the book

Celeste Ng explores the tension of lost opportunities

David Wilson for the Boston Globe

Celeste Ng says her debut novel’s plot is “in no way autobiographical” — the book depicts a family dealing with the sudden death of a teenage daughter — but some of the story’s roots do spring from her own experience.

Growing up in suburban Pennsylvania and Ohio, Ng was aware that her family often stood out as among the few Asian Americans in their neighborhood. That feeling of “negotiating between two cultures,” she said in an interview, is something she took from life and gave to the characters of “Everything I Never Told You.”

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Another inspiration, if only as a “very small seed,” was the story Ng’s husband told her about a schoolmate who had pushed his younger sister into a lake. The child was rescued, she adds, “but for some reason that image of a little girl falling into the water stuck with me. When I started to write, it changed into something quite different.”

In the novel, the drowned girl is a teenager, the middle child in a family in which, Ng says, “a lot of things go unsaid,” among them the resentments of the children’s mother, whose ambition for a scientific career has been thwarted by the times, and by motherhood.

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That tension is one reason Ng set her book in the 1970s, a few decades before her own teenage years. “It felt to me like a really potent era to highlight some of those issues,” she went on, “I think especially for women who were mothers of teenagers at that time, it must have been bittersweet to see their daughters getting so many opportunities, but realizing that their time had passed.”

Ng, who names Elizabeth Strout, Ann Patchett, and Arundhati Roy among her favorite contemporary authors (“I read ‘The God of Small Things’ in whole or in part every single year”), attended Harvard as an undergraduate and returned to Cambridge after receiving her MFA from Michigan.

Ng will read from her new book Thursday at 7 p.m. at Harvard Book Store.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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