Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Pub. Date: May 12, 2015 (orig. June, 2014)
Source: Finished trade paperback via publisher (Thank you, Penguin!!)
Summary: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins this debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.
When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart.
Recommended for: Readers who enjoy seeing what goes on behind closed doors, readers who like family secrets and Asian lit.
Have you ever comes across a novel, have seen and witnessed the mindboggling amount of praise it’s received, yet you still put it off and put it off until, finally, you read it and want to kick yourself for waiting so long?? Enter Everything I Never Told You, a surprisingly slim thing of a novel (less than 300 pages – for some reason I had been convinced it was so much longer) that packs a punch. What starts with a bang – the very first sentence lets you know that Lydia, the middle child (and favorite) is dead – keeps the momentum going right to the very end and is gut-wrenching in every way.
To know about Lydia, you must first know about her parents. James Lee, the son of an immigrant, has forever been outcast. Always the sole Asian (labeled in the book as Oriental) in school, James suffered decades of stares and whispers even outright attacks (rocks being thrown at his car, etc.) As a graduate student he meets Lydia’s mother Marilyn, blue-eyed and Caucasian, and when the class he is teaching is over (about the American Cowboy) Marilyn kisses him. For Marilyn, kissing James means he understands: she’s a physics major with dreams of moving on to med school and becoming a doctor while her mother’s dream for Marilyn is to meet “lots of Harvard men” and become a homemaker. For James, that kiss is all about blending in and finally – finally – being accepted.
In the 1970s a mixed-race marriage is still uncommon and, for many, frowned upon (Marilyn’s own mother announced her disappointment by saying she wished Marilyn would have married someone “more like her.”) For the Lees, small-town Ohio isn’t exactly the most suitable place, but it’s home and the arrival of their first child Nathan brings all of Marilyn’s dreams to an end. With their second child, this time a girl, the Lees do what any (every?) parent does: try to give their daughter the very best life possible. Only, their good intentions mean pushing their own hopes and dreams onto Lydia. For James it’s his need to be surrounded by friends, to be loved and popular. For Marilyn, it’s her own failed attempt at becoming a doctor and before Lydia could even read she had an entire bookcase full of chemistry books. As only a sibling can, Nath sees how the pressure gets to her, overhears her “phone conversations” with her friends – Lydia talking to a dead line.
The Lee’s third child is all but forgotten about, but I found Hannah to be the most compelling and loved seeing through her eyes. She’s observant where the others are not, but even she misses details leading to the bigger picture. While Everything I Never Told You isn’t exactly a mystery, the novel takes its time in getting around to explaining just how Lydia died – how did her body come to be at the bottom of the lake? Was she pushed? Did she act alone? While this novel definitely focuses on Lydia, I felt this is much more a story about the Lees and, like the title so aptly suggests, what they never said.
Celeste Ng perfectly captures the sibling dynamic and every sentence felt warranted. It’s hard to believe this is a debut but with this as her introduction to the literary world, I cannot wait to see where she goes next! Everything I Never Told You is a brilliant and heartbreaking look at a family and I highly, highly recommend it.