(Content Warning for death and mentions of sexism and racism)
One thing I’ve learned about literary fiction is this: it’s often really heavy. I doubt this is always true, but Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You was certainly not an exception to this rule. The Lee family’s daughter Lydia drowns, and her family grieves as they try to figure out what happened. The book splits itself evenly between describing the family’s past and present, telling the story of Lydia’s death while the characters reflect back on it.
What we find is the issues of grandparents, of parents, all traveling to fall on Lydia’s shoulders. Her mother, Marilyn, wanted to be a doctor in a society that didn’t see women as doctors and passed on her dream to Lydia when she failed to achieve it. Her father, James, wanted to be accepted in a country that refused to accept him because of his race, and he passes his desire for connection onto Lydia.
Lydia doesn’t want any of this, however. She doesn’t want to become a doctor, or to feel pressured to make friends, but she feels that she doesn’t have a choice, that she must make her parents happy by fulfilling their dreams for them.
Lydia doesn’t feel that she has any options besides those her parents have set for her. She doesn’t know what her own goals are because she doesn’t feel that she’s allowed to have them. Her parts of the story revolve around her struggling to deal with the pressure, to survive while being constantly observed by her parents, to live up to their expectations.
Lydia’s struggles, I’ve found, don’t appear often in the books I’ve read. I’m a fantasy reader, mostly, so the stories I come across usually follow a pattern that goes something like this:
1 – The protagonist is an orphan or their parent(s) matter very little in the grand scheme of things.
2 – The protagonist discovers that they are destined for some great destiny.
3 – The protagonist achieves said destiny and rides off into the sunset.
We can see that the protagonists don’t often have parents, for some reason, perhaps so they can avoid this very problem of surveillance and expectation, but the part about the great destiny seems like it fulfills a similar role, that the actions of those who came before the protagonist have led to the protagonist’s fate, and so the protagonist’s life becomes a vessel for the past, for fixing mistakes. All sorts of horror, building until it cannot be contained. I suppose the evil dark lord figure in Lydia’s story would be the racism and sexism that cause her parents pain, pain that they pass on to her. Lydia is tasked with trying to defy both these forces against her will.
What kind of lives would the Chosen Ones lead if they weren’t sent off to fight the eternal darkness? If the eternal darkness could have been stopped long ago, would they be better off? Fantasy books half the time seem to say no, to applaud the characters as heroes and show how wonderful and worthy they are, but not all. In Lord of the Rings, for example, we see how crushed Frodo is after his journey, how much he suffers, and it’s hard to imagine that he’s better off than he would have been if the ring had never existed. Lydia’s experiences cause her a great amount of stress and lead directly to her death, where she attempts to swim to represent turning away from the challenges her parents have set upon her, but instead drowns.
However, leaving Sauron to take over the world isn’t exactly an option, just as leaving sexism and racism to run the world isn’t something we can let happen. However, as we see from Lydia, it’s impossible for one person to overcome everything, so why do we frame narratives like this? From a practical writing standpoint, it’s probably easier for the reader to keep track of what’s happening if everything is focused on only a few people. I’m not sure I can really say beyond that, besides making vague guesses about individuality being an American principle and such that I’m not sure I can fully explain without extensive academic research.
Perhaps I should pair my indulgence in fantasy with literary fiction more often. It breaks through the haze that’s set up around the ideas that I’m used to and helps me see them from new perspectives. Perhaps this is true for mixing any genres. Whatever the case, what does the Chosen One model even accomplish? Will it continue to exist or come to be replaced by something else? I don’t want it gone, necessarily; I just want it not to be the pinnacle of heroism to fight battles alone. It isn’t sustainable, it’s an impossible ideal, and something that can be harmful if Lydia and Frodo are any indication.