Expectations are powerful. They can inspire, propel, intimidate, crush. In these books, they play a key role in the trajectory of characters’ lives.
These three books are among my all-time favorites. Their common theme is one that weighs heavily on me as I’ve always worried I won’t live up to expectations, especially my own.
The unforgettable “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng is a staggeringly poignant story of expectations on children. In this case, it leads to tragedy, but that’s no spoiler because within the first sentence we know the teenage Lydia is dead. The novel is much like the stories of Jhumpa Lahiri (whose books I would highly recommend, especially “The Namesake” and “Unaccustomed Earth”) that involve immigrant experiences and the pressures children face to do more, be more and prove more. Ng’s book focuses on Marilyn and James Lee’s dreams — dashed by parenthood, racism and thwarted attempts at happiness — that end up being inherited by their favorite child. Lydia hopes that by relentlessly trying to be all her parents hope for that she can maintain the tenuous happiness and delicate balance in her family structure.
Assumptions chip away at relationships. Just how well do the Lees know their children? How well do Lydia and her siblings really know each other? How well does Lydia know Jack, the object of her affection?
Lydia struggles under the burden of being a disappointment. But just as she resolves to be her own best self, to stand up for who she is, free from the goals others have placed upon her and the sacrifices she puts upon herself, tragedy strikes.
In “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach, Mike Schwartz sees a bright future for his college baseball team when he’s able to help recruit fielding phenom Henry Skrimshander. He takes Henry under his wing and puts his own best interests aside. When Henry’s confidence tanks, Schwartzy realizes he has sacrificed his future for Henry’s and the team’s. And the expectations the team and college place on Henry may not match his own. Several characters have to figure out how to live their lives on their own terms.
Edith Wharton skewers the pettiness and cruelty of 19th-Century New York high society (of which she was a member) in “The House of Mirth.” Lily Bart is a once-wealthy beauty whose currency, both literally and figuratively, is in decline. She expects to inherit from an aunt, but also knows she must marry to secure her future. The fly in the ointment is that she wants it all — money, love and a place in society — on her own terms. Missteps, delays, misinterpretations, malevolent maneuverings by supposed friends and desperate attempts to maintain her status keep her from her happy ending.
“… she had a fatalistic sense of being drawn from one wrong turning to another, without perceiving the right one to take until it was too late.”
Wharton paints Lily as a sympathetic character, one burdened by the circumstances of her birth and a victim of her own choices. In hesitation, a fate is determined.
“That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.”
It’s a beautiful novel, full of emotion and a chilliness within the opulent, manner-driven confines of a bygone society.