Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, 304 pages, The Penguin Press, hardcover, 2014, $26.95.
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”
Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You starts here, with the mysterious death of Lydia, the favorite daughter of James and Marilyn Lee. While this story is undoubtedly a thriller, the suspense lies not only with uncovering the cause of death, but largely with the family’s individual reactions. Her father, James, begins to attempt accepting and moving on by way of turning away from his family, while her mother, Marilyn, becomes obsessed with finding out everything she didn’t know about her daughter. Her brother is convinced the neighborhood bad-boy is involved, while the youngest sister is rarely noticed, but observes more than anyone else.
As the story unravels, we get to know the characters beyond than their mournfulness. Ng creates a perfectly realistic portrait of these individuals. We get to know each of their histories, and in doing so, Ng reminds us our parents’ histories shape us in ways which we aren’t aware:
How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.
Ng intertwines the cultural challenges of immigrants’ children and societal restraints on women of the twentieth century within the details of the story, giving her audience a clear image of the Lee family. Born of Chinese immigrants, James did everything he could to be an American in the 1950’s, but was ridiculed and bullied throughout his life. Like many parents, all he’d wanted as an adult was to watch his children grow up with everything he didn’t have, and when it came to Lydia, he thought she was living that life. It wasn’t until reading the newspaper after his daughter’s funeral that he realized the truth—Lydia had never really assimilated into the culture: “As one of only two Orientals at Middlewood High— the other being her brother, Nathan — Lee stood out in the halls. However, few seemed to have known her well.” It was one thing that his daughter had died, it was another to find out she wasn’t living the life he’d thought.
Marilyn also wanted Lydia to have all that she couldn’t have; Marilyn grew up with a quintessential 1950’s homemaker-mother who encouraged her to find a good husband at Harvard, until that man turned out to be Chinese. Marilyn had wanted to be a doctor, but Ng illustrates through Marilyn’s narrative that life doesn’t always go according to plan. When her mother’s life became her own, she began to push her own dreams onto Lydia, convincing herself this is what Lydia wanted.
Through the telling of the each family member’s own personal crisis, Ng weaves numerous narratives into one, while gradually revealing exactly what happened to Lydia. She incorporates the family image and unraveling of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and the cultural awareness and difficulties of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri in a totally new and original way. This story is a candid reflection of a family and painfully honest in its illustrations of life, love, desire, and the individual self; it is complex, unpredictable, and riveting.