Written by Celeste Ng
Published by Penguin on May 12th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Family Life
Format: trade paper
"Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet. So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. 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. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia's older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it's the youngest of the family-Hannah-who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened. A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another"--
Everything I Never Told You is Celeste Ng’s debut novel, and t I got some interesting comments on Facebook when I said I was reading it:
I didn’t love it, but I didn’t think it was particularly dumb, either. However, I’m not sure I have all that much to tell you about it, and so…
EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU in Bullet Points
- What’s it about? Everything I Never Told You dissects a family that was already fragmented before tragedy shredded it. Sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee goes missing from her home. The police find her body in a nearby lake. several days later, and rule the death a suicide. Lydia’s mother Marilyn, who has invested all of her own ambitions in her daughter, refuses to believe it. Her brother Nathan is sure the boy across the street was somehow involved. And her father James just can’t process it. Ng uses the mystery as a framework for flashbacks told from multiple viewpoints, revealing a family who didn’t tell each other any of what really mattered.
- What worked for me? Although it’s framed by a mystery, Everything I Never Told You advances through character relationships more than plot twists. Ng’s writing balances restraint and emotion.
- What didn’t I like? I expected a period novel, but the emphasis of Everything I Never Told You isn’t on the period I expected. The novel opens in 1977, but most of what defined the Lees as a family occurs at least a decade earlier. They operate on norms from the pre-feminist 1950s and ’60s. Part of that mindset means that, by tacit agreement or conscious choice, there are many, many things they don’t tell each other. I understand how that contributes to the story’s tension, but I found it frustrating.
- Recommended? Ultimately, yes. Ng writes about Midwestern Asian-American characters in a time and place when such families were uncommon. Her depiction of attitudes toward the Lees is uncomfortable but appropriate to the time, and the cultural context is a big part of what makes Everything I Never Told You stand out from other missing-daughter novels.
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”
Upstairs, Marilyn opens her daughter’s door and sees the bed unslept in: neat hospital corners still pleated beneath the comforter, pillow still fluffed and convex. Nothing seems out of place. Mustard-colored corduroys tangled on the floor, a single rainbow-striped sock. A row of science fair ribbons on the wall, a postcard of Einstein. Lydia’s duffel bag crumpled on the floor of the closet. Lydia’s green bookbag slouched against her desk. Lydia’s bottle of Baby Soft atop the dresser, a sweet, powdery, loved-baby scent still in the air. But no Lydia.
Marilyn closes her eyes. Maybe, when she opens them, Lydia will be there, covers pulled over her head as usual, wisps of hair trailing from beneath. A grumpy lump bundled under the bedspread that she’d somehow missed before. I was in the bathroom, Mom. I went downstairs for some water. I was lying right here all the time. Of course, when she looks, nothing has changed. The closed curtains glow like a blank television screen.