Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
At first glance, Everything I Never Told You looks like a classic thriller. There’s a missing girl, a family with secrets, a lake, and a bad boy who knows more than he’s willing to say. It’s easy to think it’s a familiar story about catching a killer. That’s the first curve ball author Celeste Ng throws at you, but not the last. It turns out discovering who killed Lydia (and did anyone actually kill Lydia?) is a secondary plot. The real mystery is figuring out who Lydia was in the first place.
Lydia Lee is her parent’s favorite child. With blue eyes and light hair, she’s the most white-looking of her siblings. Both parents project their unfulfilled needs on her. Her father is afraid for her because of her “otherness”, being one of the only mixed people in their small Ohio town (although that fear doesn’t seem to extend to his two other children). He constantly encourages her to be social, to go to dances, to make friends. For Christmas, he buys her a book about how to be popular. From her mother, she bears the burden of excellence. Marilyn had to give up her dreams of being one of the first female doctors when she got pregnant. She vows that Lydia will succeed where she failed. While her father wants her to make friends, her mother enforces a tightly-regimented study schedule that would make any friendship impossible. She will be the doctor her white mother was not. And she will be the social butterfly the awkward son of Chinese immigrants could never be.
After the police find Lydia’s body in the lake (not a spoiler, it’s in the first chapter) they ask the family questions. Did Lydia seemed depressed? Did she have friends? A boyfriend? How was she doing at school? At first, her parents are indignant. Of course she was happy! She would never kill herself! But they never actually saw past their daughter’s serene façade. To them, Lydia was a blank slate. Even Lydia’s more perceptive siblings couldn’t grasp why she went to the lake that night. Her sister knew she could be angry. Her brother knew that she could be scheming but also deeply lonely. He knew she didn’t have friends, and the conversations she had on the phone every night were pretend, meant to placate her father.
Everything I Never Told You is a gut-wrenching novel about the unintended and fatal consequences of good intentions. Beautifully written, peopled with well-written and imperfect characters, everyone should pick up this stunning debut novel.