Celeste Ng is a rising talent in the world of bestseller authorship. She was published in a few anthologies and then she came out with her first novel, Everything I Never Told You, a massively popular pick for books clubs everywhere. Most recently, Little Fires Everywhere has been the “IT” book for the past few seasons. My book club selected her breakout novel which is a contemporary (the 70s is “contemporary”, right?) tragedy/drama centered on a middle-class Asian-American family in Ohio. Penguin Books | May, 2016 | Paperback | 297 pp
The first line, which is also included in the blurb, sets the premise.
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”
Everything I Never Told You is not a mysterious whodunnit, but a glimpse into a modern family tragedy. The story is set around a close-knit mixed family before and after the death of the oldest daughter, a severely misunderstood teenager. The story flips back and forth between parents and siblings, pre-death and post.
James Lee is a Harvard grad and history professor at the local college. His Chinese family were immigrants and in a sea of white skin, he found it difficult to fit in. Making friends was always difficult. He was always the outcast. But he did well in school and excelled in his career. He also married Marilyn, a white woman who gave him that connection to the outside world. She belonged, and now so did he. Marilyn’s mother was a traditional woman who taught home economics and espoused the virtues of getting married and becoming a housewife. Marilyn wanted none of it. She was mathematically and scientifically inclined and her grades proved it. More than anything, she wanted to become a doctor. But she met and fell in love with James, married him to the chagrin of her mother, and ended up becoming a housewife and mother, putting aside her studies.
Both James and Marilyn have unfinished business with their own lives and put those burdens square on Lydia, their favorite child. James wants Lydia to fit in, to blend, and to build friendships. Marilyn is convinced that Lydia has an inclination toward math and science like she did, and pushes her to take advanced classes and focus on her future. Lydia doesn’t want to disappoint either of them for reasons I can’t divulge (re: spoilers), and so the pressure builds and builds because she’s not like them. Until one day, she just can’t take it anymore.
The believably rating is a ten. The depths of which we pass of our wants and needs to others, our refusal to say what we want for our own selves, our desire to please others – it’s all too real. And the tragic outcome which is a direct result of these human inclinations is a plausible one.
Lydia is not the only tragedy, either. Her two siblings are also caught up in the mix. Her older brother is like their mother, but no one seems to notice his achievements because it’s all about Lydia. While Marilyn is struggling to come to terms with the fact that Lydia is failing her super advanced physics class, Nathan (the brother) is applying at Ivy League schools because he can. When he’s accepted into Harvard, they seem surprised. The youngest daughter is completely ignored but she seems to enjoy her state of invisibility.
Then there is the irony of the parental roles, especially with Marilyn. Her mother had pushed and pushed things that Marilyn never wanted: cooking, home economics, homemaking, motherhood, marrying a nice, clean, white guy. Marilyn wanted to be a doctor. She never did become a doctor and she married a Chinese man, and her mother never spoke to her again. Marilyn was convinced she would be a different mother, a better mother. But instead of letting Lydia choose her own path, she forced a path just like her own mother tried to do.
Everything I Never Told You backs up my own methodology of parenting. I guide my children, nurture them, and expose them to different experiences – but I don’t try to force them to enjoy things they don’t enjoy. As young as they are, I give them breathing room. I let them make some of their own decisions. I don’t force them to participate in activities they don’t want to do (at least, not all of the time). And if they find interest in something, whatever it is, I let them explore it so long as it’s not a problematic interest.
My problem with the book is simple and personal: I was bored, and I was depressed. The writing is terrific, the story line is believable, and the material will provide hours of discussion for book clubs. But on a personal preference level, it wasn’t for me.
Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng