book group · classics · review

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck

The Good Earth

Originally published in 1931, The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck delivers a problematic (for oh so many reasons) portrait of a family that rises and falls and rises again in the years before the 1911 revolution. Buck lived in China for years, working as a missionary (though she later gave speeches against missionary work), and appears to have fallen in love with the culture. I daresay The Good Earth contains much of what Buck learned about everyday life in rural China—though I have a lot of questions about how much is true and how much is stereotype. I was worried when I started the book that I would see a lot of racism. I was wrong on that front. Instead, I should have worried about misogyny and sexism.

Wang Lung, at the outset of The Good Earth is a humble farmer. He has his patch of land. He can support himself and his father in a good year, but there aren’t a lot of extras. On the day we meet him, Wang Lung is splurging with a hot bath and some delicacies from the markets because it is the day he goes to claim his wife from the Hwang family. O-lan is a slave (having been sold by her destitute father when she was a child) for the family and, for a price, the family have released her to be Wang Lung’s wife. She is not pretty, but Wang Lung is content. He knows that she can work and a farmer doesn’t need anything fancy.

The first days of their marriage set the pattern for the rest of O-lan’s life and most of Wang Lung’s. He works in the fields. She works in the house. Apart from conceiving children, Wang Lung doesn’t pay much attention to her. In fact, he frequently describes her as dumb and dim. He’s not overtly cruel, but his lack of affection and consideration wear on O-lan over the years. Over the course of the novel, we will learn how much O-lan sacrifices for her husband and family. We also see how little she expects from her husband in return, though it never occurs to him that he owes her anything other than a roof over her head and the means to feed and cloth herself.

The Good Earth shows us Wang Lung in poverty and in wealth. He’s not a good person in either extreme. When the family are poor, Wang Lung makes drastic decisions and only purest luck changes their fortunes. When the family are rich, Wang Lung is even worse. He becomes just like the rich Hwangs he simultaneously envied and despised at the beginning of the book. He becomes a petty tyrant to his family (except for his uncle’s family, who he can’t get rid of because the village would judge him).

If ever there was a story crying out for a retelling from another character’s perspective, it’s The Good Earth. The more I read of Wang Lung and his increasing selfishness, the more I wanted to hear from O-lan. I wanted to know what she was thinking. She rarely speaks. Everything we know about her comes from her husband, who doesn’t know her at all. Wang Lung views the women in his life as either servants (O-lan, his daughters), as objects of pleasure (his mistress), or as trouble (his aunt). At one point, Wang Lung tells us:

So these two women took their place in his house: Lotus for his toy and his pleasure and to satisfy his delight in beauty and in smallness and in the joy of her pure sex, and O-lan for his woman of work and the mother who had borne his sons and who kept his house and fed him and his father and his children. (186*)

Over and over I was reminded how little women counted for in Wang Lung’s world. I wanted to roar at him through the pages to treat O-lan with the respect she deserves. He only treats her with kindness when he learns she is dying. Otherwise, he is annoyed with her or ignores her. I felt so badly for her.

Another thought that struck me while reading The Good Earth was the idea of land enduring after one’s lifetime, which I also saw in Mo Yan’s Red Sorghum. People come and go, these books show us, but the land is always there to sustain whoever owns it and cares for it. Land is one of the few things Wang Lung is prudent about. In the second half of the novel, land supports Wang Lung’s growing wealth. As he grows richer he becomes more and more removed from the land and, consequently, falls prey to the worse of his character flaws. It is only when he returns to the land and his original house to die that Wang Lung starts to redeem himself (though it’s far too late for him to apologize to O-lan, the bastard).

The Good Earth is the Wang Lung show. He fills the narrative, leaving nary a crack for other characters. (It doesn’t help that there are so few named characters in this book. Wang Lung’s sons are referred to by number, for example.) In comparison, O-lan is so hardworking and virtuous that I longed for a respite from Wang Lung’s selfishness and autocratic ways. Against her husband’s poor boy made good tale, O-lan’s tragedy stands out. She moved me just like Thomas Hardy’s Tess did. I hoped against hope that she would find happiness, only to be thwarted when her long death from cancer did little more than make Wang Lung feel “remorseful” for a few months.

I anticipate a lively discussion on Friday when the book group gets together. In addition to my comments here, I have a veritable list of things that I took issue with in The Good Earth to talk about. I may even froth at the mouth.

* Quote is from the 1944 Modern Library edition.

book group · historical fiction · literary fiction · review

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You
Everything I Never Told You

It finally happened. My book group picked a book that made me want to ugly-cry. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You hit me hard. Everything I Never Told You, set in Ohio in the late 1970s, gave me a ringside view of a family that has a hard time being honest about the emotional hurts they inflict on each other. The title is a refrain that runs through the whole book. Every member of the Lee family is holding back from each other. We’re left to puzzle why. Instead, Ng tells us exactly what they’re holding back from each other. This is the kind of book that will have you thinking about your own family, about all the things you’d wished you’d said to your family members.

Near the beginning of the novel, after the oldest Lee daughter’s body has been found in a nearby lake, there is a question and an explanation of what happened to Lydia Lee:

How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible. (25*)

Lydia was the daughter both her parents had counted on to be what they could never be. Ng’s narrative takes us back and forth in time, to show us how Marilyn and James became the people they are. Lydia’s father, James, a Chinese American, had always been made to feel different. He didn’t have friends. James’ daughter inherited his long black hair, but not his epicanthic fold. She could pass for White. Lydia’s mother saw her eldest daughter as another chance to be a doctor. Marilyn’s goal had always been to be a doctor. Getting pregnant, then married, derailed her. For most of Lydia’s too-short life, both parents had pressured her to be what they hadn’t been: popular, pioneering, perfect. Whenever I read a book like Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, I invariably think of Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse.” Larkin wrote:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

Until Lydia went missing, James and Marilyn had no clue that anything was wrong. Lydia never told them. Lydia’s siblings, however, have a little better idea of how lonely and unhappy Lydia was. When the police arrive after Lydia’s disappearance, cracks appear in the parental Lees’ vision of their daughter. Lydia’s “friends” turn out not to have talked to her for months. Lydia had been pretending to have conversations with them on the phone. She was failing physics. All Lydia’s diaries were blank.

Without Lydia, without her facade of filial perfection, the Lee family comes unglued. Still, they can’t bring themselves to say what they need to say to each other. They rip each other to shreds with the things they say. The words they snarl and shout at each other hit psychological sore spots that have been festering for years.

One might think that Everything I Never Told You was building to a painful but necessary catharsis. This is not that kind of book. It’s more honest than that. It’s also more frustrating than that. While we, the readers, are privy to the whole story (for the most part), the question of why the family can’t speak fully and truthfully with each other remains for us to puzzle over. I have met many people (and am related to several) that deal with things by emphatically not dealing with them. They let the hurts scab over. They lie in their psyche, waiting to be prodded by unkind words in the future. But they can function, mostly. It’s easier to leave the scabs alone, because saying what they want to say will hurt other people. Or it will make them examine their own failings too closely and they’ll hurt themselves. Though they never admit it in so many words, I can see the Lees constantly shying away from both of these scenarios.

As for the ending and how the family copes (or fails to cope) with Lydia’s death, I have theories. The ending of the novel is ambiguous about the Lee family’s relationships. Do they finally learn to be honest? My first theory about what happens to the Lees is that, because they have spent so many years not opening up to each other, it’s easier for them to move on from their daughter’s death and the hurts they inflicted on each other by never talking about these things again. The second is that the real catharsis and forgiveness the family needs is off in their future, that Everything I Never Told You is just an episode in their lives. No doubt there are other explanations, but I suspect my first theory might be the closest to the truth. If the second theory is more correct, then the real healing is waiting for Lees, when they’re strong enough to peel off the scabs and finally say all the thing they’re holding back. How one resolves the ambiguity, I suppose, depends on how optimistic one is.

Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Prescribe this book to readers who need to be reminded of the cost of letting psychological wounds fester. Honesty hurts, but only for a little while. Unexamined pain can last a lifetime.

* Quote is from the 2014 Kindle edition by Penguin Random House. Page numbers are approximate.

book group · reading life

L’esprit d’escalier; Or, trying and failing to discuss your favorite books

I was so excited about this evening’s book group meeting. Last time, we decided to read Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, to make a change from all the depressing books we’ve been reading lately. Shortly after our discussion of the book began and some of the members expressed that they’d had a hard time getting into the book*, I told the group that it’s probably the book I’ve re-read the most. Then a member asked me why it was one of my favorite books.

My mind went blank.

Aileen Colle**

I can talk all day about books I’ve liked, hated, detested, enjoyed, etc. But it hit me in that moment: I apparently have no idea how to talk about books I love deeply. I managed to say something about how I loved the questions Good Omens posed. I first read it at a critical time, when I was about fifteen and finishing up confirmation classes. I love the humor of the book. Even after re-reading it for almost twenty years, it makes me laugh.

As I was driving home, esprit d’escalier hit me. I thought of all the things I should have said when I was asked why I love Good Omens so much. Good Omens is an integral part of how I think about religion, morality, intentions, and ethics. Yes, it’s a humorous book, but comedy does more than just make us laugh. Humor turns things upside down to reveal absurdity and dissonance. The best kind of comedy speaks truth to power. Good Omens does that by raising questions about Christianity and its eschatology.

That’s why Good Omens is one of my favorite books.

* I know!
** I think. It’s hard to read the artist’s name.