Everything I Never Told You (2014) by Celeste Ng is a remarkable novel. I picked it up because it was on my list of21 Books From The Last 5 Years That Every Woman Should Read. I didn’t have any expectations, but I ended up being very impressed with Ng’s quiet characterization and intricate family drama.
At first glance, this novel could be a murder mystery. Sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee doesn’t show up for breakfast, and her bed hasn’t been slept in. When her body is later dragged from the nearby lake, her parents start looking for a murderer, while officials suspect suicide. The rest of the book is the exploration of what led to the death of Lydia Lee. Ng goes back and delves deeply into each member of her family and their dynamics with each other and the rest of the world.
Race plays a pretty large role in this book. James Lee is the son of Chinese immigrants who grew up isolated and alone, obtaining free tuition at the elite, private boarding school where his parents worked. As a professor, he ends up meeting and marrying Marilyn, one of his students. “It was 1958; in Virginia, in half the country, their wedding would break the law.” (51) Marilyn, a white woman, once dreamed of becoming a doctor but was stifled by both her mother and society. Marilyn and James are both defined and limited by their race and gender in clear ways that affect them and their children forever.
Their three children: Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah have their own struggles. One of these is growing up half-Chinese in their all-white, suburban Ohio neighborhood in 1977. Quite often, their other struggles involve meeting the expectations of their parents or dealing with their disappointment.
It is the relationships that are the most well drawn and memorable parts of this book. The relationship Marilyn Lee had with her mother was both achingly sad and clearly showed how Marilyn had become who she was. “[Marilyn] thought with sharp and painful pity of her mother, who had planned on a golden, vanilla-scented life but ended up alone, trapped like a fly in this small and sad and empty house, this small and sad and empty life.” (83) In addition, the unspoken thoughts and misunderstandings that drive James and Marilyn’s relationship were both realistic and haunting. It’s amazing how much we don’t say in relationships, and how much the other party assumes based on their own ghosts. “It has been so long since he thought of his wife as a creature of want.” (251) Ng gets inside every character’s head, so the reader can see where everyone is coming from in this intricate story.
Perhaps most relevant to Lydia’s death and the central part of the story are the relationships of the three kids to each other and to their parents. Lydia is the golden child, burdened with the expectations of both parents. “And Lydia herself–the reluctant center of their universe–every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within.” (160) Nathan is too much like his father for his father to be proud of him. “James would think back to this day in the swimming pool, this first disappointment in his son, this first and most painful puncture in his fatherly dreams.” (92) But Nathan has become relatively comfortable with his role in the family, and he is very excited to be leaving the next year for college. Hannah, the third, unexpected child, is a quiet observer and mostly forgotten by both her parents and siblings.
My short explanations do not do justice to what Ng achieved in creating this family. It’s like watching a detailed documentary that manages to honestly interview everyone about their entire lives and leave no secrets unturned. The relationships feel real, and you can see the insecurities passed down through generations–all in different ways. I found this book remarkably sad–and not necessarily because of the death of Lydia–but because of the many, quiet moments between characters who are trying their best but end up hurting one of their loved ones in the process. Definitely recommended.
“For the rest of the summer, and for years after that, they will grope for the words that say what they mean: to Nath, to Hannah, to each other. There is so much they need to say. (282)