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Sit down, get comfy, because I have A LOT TO SAY.
I tend to avoid novels about foster care and adoption, because as someone who’s experienced the system firsthand I can tell you that novelists often prove way more committed to sensationalism than facts. Also because after going through a challenging experience, you don’t necessarily need to read fictionalized versions of that experience, you know? I didn’t need Celeste Ng to tell me about my own life.
But I loved her first book so dearly, I couldn’t let another Celeste Ng novel exist in the world and not read it. Line for line, she is probably on my list of top three favorite living writers. Reading her books feels effortless to me. Her prose is precise and her characters are instantly knowable. It’s less like reading and more like peering through a knothole directly into another person’s head, and I couldn’t pass that up even as I wrung my hands over how she would handle a topic I’ve been so personally invested in.
For those of you who don’t know, some highly condensed back story: My husband and I were foster parents to a little boy for one year, during the time when he was about 1-2 years old. When we accepted the placement, we were told by social workers that we would likely be able to adopt him, but we quickly learned what the characters in Ng’s book find out much later: there are no guarantees in foster care. Tomorrow the grass may be red and the sky may be purple. You have to take literally one day at a time, because no one knows what is going to happen in that child’s case from one day to the next. I find this is really hard for people who haven’t fostered to grasp, because typically we think of parenting as a permanent state. As a foster parent you have to recognize, even as you do all the things other parents do, you might not be the one doing those things for your child next week, next month, or next year.
And here’s the toughest part for most people to understand: that is okay. We are a foster care success story. Ideally, every child should be raised by biological parent(s) in a safe and loving home. My husband and I still think about our foster son often. If his case had worked out differently, we had agreed we would adopt him and we’d have sent him off to kindergarten this year. But one of his parents was a good and safe option for him, and we are so happy that he is being raised by that parent.
Because his biological family can give him things that we couldn’t. My husband and I are white, our foster son is Hispanic. Even with our best intentions, there is no way we could have given him the same connection to his culture that he will have with his biological family. We don’t speak Spanish. We live in a suburban area with overwhelmingly white schools. Financial resources and good hearts cannot ever make up for that. When we found out our boy would be leaving our home, we were sad to see him go but also at peace because we knew it was the right thing, the best thing, for him. Adam likes to tell people when they ask about our plans to have children (because somehow this is still seen by some as an appropriate question to ask), “We have a kid. He’s just being raised by someone else.”
So yeah, I read this book as fast as I could over a weekend, because I knew I did not want to sit long in a story (at least partly) about an affluent white couple self-righteously fighting to retain custody of a baby that was not theirs. I’m not sure how extensive Ng’s research was or how accurate her portrayal of May Ling’s case is, since I was a foster parent in Kansas in 2013 and not Ohio in the ‘90s. In any case, it’s clear the McCulloughs did not get the training that we received before getting licensed as foster parents. Come to think of it, were they even licensed? Because there is no way a baby left at a fire station today would just be shunted off to any old couple who’d expressed an interest in adoption, with no explanation to the foster parents that no adoption is final until it’s final in court.
Maybe the ‘90s really were the adoption version of the Wild West, who knows. Whether May Ling’s situation is realistic or not, I appreciated how Ng makes clear both the dilemma of two mothers fighting over a child, and how wrongly entitled the McCulloughs feel to be parents. No one “deserves” to be a parent, no matter how much they want it or how long they’ve waited, because it’s not about the parents, it’s about the child. If we’re going to talk about who deserves what, let’s talk about how every child deserves to have a loving, capable parent who can provide for their needs and keep them safe. Ng seems to understand this distinction.
And speaking of being able to provide for a child’s needs, May Ling’s mother’s struggles as a single mom working a minimum wage job with low proficiency in English and few resources really drove home to me how badly we are failing parents and children in this country. I truly can’t imagine being a good parent while juggling all of that on my own. The answer is not to take children away from parents who are poor and give them to people who are well off. The answer is to empower and support those parents so they can feed their kids and pay their freaking bills and not have to choose between the two.
Even though I think Ng makes it pretty clear who should have been given custody of May Ling, she’s a novelist, and novelists aren’t in the business of stating things outright. I cringe to think of all the white women who will read this for book club and talk about how “complicated” adoption is and how the issue is “such a gray area.” Debates will ensue in which some of those book clubbers defend the McCulloughs and parrot all of their self-serving justifications as they sip their white wine and nibble their canapes. I just...can’t. My blood pressure is rising just thinking about it. (Here’s hoping Ng’s third book is about howler monkeys trained as spies or something.)
Of course, the book is about much, much more than the McCulloughs. I’ve focused on that aspect here because of my personal experience, but getting to know the Richardsons and Mia and Pearl was much more enjoyable for me. One of my favorite parts of Everything I Never Told You was how real each of the family members became in my mind as I read, and I felt the same way about these new characters. I liked and respected Mia even as I recognized parts of myself in stiff, staid, rule-following Elena. I loved Izzy’s fiery fierceness and commitment to justice. And just like with Ng’s first book, I had no idea what was going to happen and was turning pages as fast as I could to find out.
All right, I’ll step off my soapbox now. This is already one of the biggest titles of the fall, and for good reason. You should probably read it.