Editorial note: I received a copy of Our Missing Hearts in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng is an impactful story about a mother’s everlasting love.
This novel was one of my most-anticipated of the year. I quite enjoyed Celeste Ng’s previous novel, Little Fires Everywhere, and the Hulu series as well. Her stories have this precise quality to draw you in with sophisticated writing and vivid details. It’s so readable and everlasting—her words truly stay with you for a long time.
While her other novels are set in a present day format, Our Missing Hearts is technically dystopian fiction, but yet, the world doesn’t feel so dissimilar to our current reality.
While there’s no impact from a pandemic in this version of the U.S., there’s economic and political turmoil. Devastating loss of jobs, protests turned violent and overall unease and a fearful mentality approach to day-to-day life.
Still, at the heart of the story is the relationship between mother and son. And despite everything that happens and is discussed, that is the key.
What’s the Story About
We meet twelve-year-old Bird who lives with his father at a university. His mother Margaret, a Chinese American poet, left the family when he was nine years old. Bird’s father does not speak much of Margaret, other than proclaiming she held unpatriotic ideas.
Margaret was a poet and activist—which stands against the PACT (Preserving American Culture and Traditions Act) act. PACT is designed to uphold American ideals and anyone who seems unpatriotic, the government will take action. The authorities are now allowed to relocate children of dissidents, especially those of Asian origin, and libraries have been forced to remove books seen as unpatriotic.
Bird can’t help and wonder about his mother. When he receives a mysterious letter containing only a cryptic drawing, he is pulled into a quest to find her. He will embark on a big journey where eventually it will take him to New York City, where a new act of defiance may be the beginning of much-needed change.
For about the half the book, we read the story from Bird’s perspective. The PACT Act had been in place for most of Bird’s life so he doesn’t know what a world is without these rules. So it’s interesting to learn about PACT from Bird. You can tell he doesn’t quite think it’s right but doesn’t yet fully understand the actual ramifications of it.
For him, he believes his mother was an active voice against it and he doesn’t understand why she would choose her protests over him. But of course, he’s so curious about what happened to her and the drawing might be the key to finding out.
I will say, as great as a character Bird is—I was a little unsure of reading an entire novel in his perspective as then it trends to more of a YA book to me. But about halfway in, we get a shift, which I think served the story well.
The setting is flat-out eerie—mainly because it feels realistic. Sometimes dystopian fiction really goes out there but not in this case. I can tell that Celeste Ng wrote this novel from a place of pain, as well as fear of where the country is heading.
In the wake of the pandemic, there was a rise in racism and violent hate crimes against the Asian American communities. A report states that anti-Asian hate crime increased by 339 percent in 2021.
In what felt was drawn from the headlines, Celeste established a somewhat alternative U.S. where those kinds of acts against Asian American communities are not denounced and most often, ignored. It’s not an easy read—there’s quite a bit of violence and trauma showcased.
And while never overly graphic, just the simple mention of the violence leaves a horrific imprint. Especially because it does happen every day in the U.S. The parallels between this alternative world and the one we live in is striking and scary.
Mother and Son
Despite the chaos and uncertainty, this story is truly about the relationship between a mother and son. Bird has so many wonderful memories of his mother and can’t reconcile this image with the activist one who would leave behind her family.
His journey to find her is memorable and full of poignant scenes.
As a mother to a young toddler son, I kept putting myself in Margaret position. I found this story so emotionally charged, even shed a tear at a couple spots, which to be honest, I don’t do often when I read.
Our Missing Hearts is a great novel. Perhaps the best novel of 2022. Touching and so timely. In many ways, it’s a quiet story about one family but also a warning about the dangers of silence and complicity. So while there are some poignant scenes, there is quite bit of a hardship too.
Again, it is a difficult read. But it’s an important one.
There’s so much to discuss with this one. Check out my book club questions here.