Book Review: “Our Missing Hearts”


Credit: Penelope Biddle

Join WSPNs Penelope Biddle in a review of author Celeste Ng’s newest novel “Our Missing Hearts,” which was released Oct. 4, 2022.

Penelope Biddle

If you are a fan of fiction books and are looking for a strong new release, your head might turn towards author Celeste Ng’s newest novel “Our Missing Hearts,” which was released Oct. 4, 2022. Ng is well known for her earlier books “Everything I Never Told You” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” Hulu made into a miniseries in 2020. The author’s strong past work gave me high hopes for another great read.

“Our Missing Hearts” incorporates similar themes as Ng’s past books. With a mishmash of issues of identity, motherhood and race, the dystopian novel tells the story of a twelve-year-old boy, Bird, whose life is changed when he receives a mysterious note. Bird lives with his father, a university librarian. Bird’s mother, on the other hand, mysteriously left the family years earlier and has not been seen or heard from since. Within the unspoken racist laws called “PACT” that this dystopian America enforces, the world Bird is living in starts to become clear to him when he receives a note that he suspects is from his mother. From here, he follows a spiraling scavenger hunt in search of her.

With the book containing many important themes, there was potential to highlight valuable and relevant ideas, but instead they felt dimmed. While forceful and obvious, the topical issues in the book lacked strong world building. This fictional world, despite the constant exposition, was too underdeveloped to make me feel a real, gripping worry that the America we know may become like the one in the book. It took until the end of the novel for a single character to even face the troubles of the dystopian world head on. Dystopian books like this one, the kind that forewarns, should give readers a captivating feeling of anxiety, yet this book was too boring to respect its important themes.

One important theme that this book highlights is censorship. “Our Missing Hearts” deals with the destruction of books as a way of pushing a political agenda and withholding information from the public. It does this in more subtle ways, like how Bird’s father burns his wife’s books after she leaves because, as Bird quickly finds out, she wrote poetry that sparked protest against “PACT,” making her books too dangerous to even own.

As many Wayland High School students read “Fahrenheit 451” during their freshman year, including myself, I was hoping for a modernized take on the old book burning storyline. After learning that “Our Missing Hearts” shares this theme, I was even more drawn to check it out. I hoped that “Our Missing Hearts” was a book I could recommend to friends who had also been obligated to read “Fahrenheit 451,” and had felt unsatisfied. In some ways, I got what I wanted.

For example, when Bird, while trying to solve one of his mother’s clues, finds out from a librarian that the government destroys books, he begins to wonder if they burn them. The librarian replies, “Oh no, we don’t burn books here. This—this is America. Right?” (58). Instead, she tells him, they mash them up and turn them into toilet paper. I appreciate this creative and darkly funny take on the destruction of books. I was also glad to see a more realistic thing, like a racist government policy, being behind the censoring instead of brainwashing just for the heck of it. Despite all of this, though, I put down the book feeling unchanged and uninterested in comparison to “Fahrenheit 451,” which is pretty bad considering the latter is a school-assigned book, and it still managed to be more interesting.

WHS students might also be more inclined to pick up this book due to the setting. Bird lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the prestigious university where his father works. I believe that Ng implies this university be Harvard based on both the fact that that is where Ng earned her undergraduate degree and the reference to the university’s possession of a ​​book thought to be bound in human skin. Because we can see familiar settings and landmarks being affected by this fictional dystopian world, the story had the potential to be very impactful, but even with that edge, it was not.

The biggest thing “Our Missing Hearts” is missing is probably some speed. I mean, it’s a very slow read. The book drags on in places it by no means needs to and is filled with endless descriptions of everything from the setting to the ancient origins of the word “author.” Such descriptions are not the kind that draws the reader’s attention into a well-set scene but the type to hurry your eyes down the page. While reading, I was hoping for a little plot twist and was itching for some action instead of memories being recounted or minor details being rattled on about.

Whenever I lost my focus while working through these slower parts, the one thing that never failed to reel me back in were Ng’s metaphors. The comparative language in “Our Missing Hearts” is vivid, beautiful and all original. Ng skips the cliches and crafts similes and metaphors that do exactly what they should: giving the reader a better understanding of what they are reading.

Some creative comparisons won’t hold a whole book together, though. Yes, they sound nice and make reading feel smooth, but you can think of it as a well-shot movie with no substance that is pretty but boring.

We all have our preferences about books, so it’s worth mentioning that the book is written in the third person and present tense. More notably, Ng also made the oh-so-creative, never done before, super necessary decision to exclude quotation marks around dialogue. While it rarely caused confusion, having unmarked dialogue added nil to the story.

Overall, despite the author’s excellent past works and the book’s relevant themes, “Our Missing Hearts,” which I would rate as a five out of ten, is nothing I would recommend as there are so many better books out in the world or even published this year. However, Ng’s other books are fully worth a read.