Everything I Never Told You is as good as everyone says it is.
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
This is how the story begins. The first line grabbed me right away, and my attention was held the whole way through.
It doesn’t seem right to do anything but wait. The children stay home from school. Television, magazines, radio: everything feels frivolous in the face of their fear. Outside it’s sunny, the air crisp and cool, but no one suggests that they move to the porch or the yard. Even housekeeping seems wrong: some clue might be sucked into the vacuum, some hint obliterated by lifting the dropped book and placing it, upright, on the shelf. So the family waits. They cluster at the table, afraid to meet each other’s eyes, staring at the wood grain of the tabletop as if it’s a giant fingerprint, or a map locating what they seek.
Lydia is the beloved middle child of James and Marilyn. Ever since her mother ‘went away’ for a few months one summer when she was five, Lydia has promised to do everything she can to make sure her mother never wants to leave again. That is a big job for a young child.
From all her studying, this flashed through her mind: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. One went up and they other went down. One gained, the other lost. One escaped, the other was trapped, forever.
Marilyn grew up with the dream that she would one day become a doctor in a day and age when most doctors were men. Part way there, she met James, fell in love, became pregnant, and they married. Now, she hopes that someday Lydia will become a doctor instead. She pushes Lydia to take sciences and do well in school. Lydia agrees to everything.
You loved so hard and hoped so much and then you ended up with nothing.
James feels haunted by his own loneliness growing up in the community’s only Chinese American family. He desperately wants his children’s experience to be different. He despises in them what he sees in himself. He imagines Lydia’s life to be different than what it is, and encourages her to fit in and be like everyone else.
White and not white. … this thing makes all the difference in the world.
Nath is Lydia’s older brother. Ever since the summer their mother disappeared for a few months he has felt invisible to his parents. He sees what it’s like for his sister to take on so much pressure from their parents, and he has been protective of her over the years. But, really all he wants is to leave.
It was too big to talk about, what had happened. It was like a landscape they could not see all at once; it was like the sky at night, which turned and turned so they couldn’t find its edges. It would always feel too big. He pushed her in. And then he pulled her out. All her life, Lydia would remember one thing. All his life, Nath would remember another.
Hannah was born after the eventful summer of Marilyn’s disappearance, but she has grown up under it’s shadow. She has been overlooked her whole life, and doesn’t expect anything different. She makes herself scarce and watches her family closely. She seems to know more about what goes on then anyone else in the family.
What Ng does so well is make this family seem so ordinary, like they could have been my family or yours. On the surface, they seem normal and happy. Marilyn and James have had the best intentions for their family, like we all do. But, as we dig deeper into the story, we find out about all their insecurities and how they hide them from each other. Marilyn and James have no idea that Lydia feels so much pressure. They mean well, and think their daughter is happy and willing to please them.
It is amazing to see how a lack of communication and connection with their children, very ordinary things that can easily happen to any of us, causes the family to grow so far apart from one another. Far enough apart that, when tragedy strikes, they completely unravel, becoming even more disconnected, rather than using each other for support and comfort. It is painful to watch this happen, and to see them dealing with it in their own, often destructive, ways.
This is a story about how our pasts can stay with us, shaping not only ourselves, but also the lives of our children. As the story unfolds, it moves smoothly and naturally from one perspective to another, as well as between the past and present, filling in the gaps until we know the whole truth. There is a lot going on in this novel. Ng makes every word count.
Will James and Marilyn ever find out what really happened to their daughter? And, will their family ever be able to begin to heal? Just when I was starting to think that things had gone too far, that they would never be able to come to terms with their grief and the disconnect that has formed over the years, Ng offers us a glimmer of hope.
The blurb on the inside flap of the cover describes this book perfectly:
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.
You can read this thorough and insightful interview with Celeste Ng at Rosemary and Reading Glasses. For more interviews and reviews of her book, find them at Celeste Ng’s website. Also, check out this Bookish Drink, inspired by Everything I Never Told You!