It’s been quite a while since I’ve had such a visceral reaction to a book. I read the bulk of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, on my snow day (a gift for a teacher, even if it’s only because we get to catch up on marking/yearbook/planning – and, yeah, reading). I don’t think I will ever be able to adequately explain how I feel about this book or these characters.
Lydia is just sixteen when she is found at the bottom of the lake across the street from her home in small-town Ohio. It’s the 1970s, the decade in which I, too, was coming-of-age. On the morning she is discovered missing (and it is this “innocuous” fact that sets the story in motion) we see the Lee family dynamic.
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.
Hannah, Lydia’s younger sister is “hunched[ed] moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one.” Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is sitting on the stairs trying to wake up. James, their father, has already left for his job as a professor at the local college.
Lydia is never late. She is never anything but compliant. She is a “yes” girl, the favoured daughter. It is only after her body is found that her story, and that of her family, begins to unravel. And yes, you will want to know what happened to Lydia, but trust me, it’s just one of the many things that will break your heart in this magnificent novel.
While every family has their own secrets and burdens, the Lee family is further set apart because Marilyn is white and James is Chinese. Their story is integral to Lydia’s story. Marilyn herself was a gifted student, earning a scholarship to Radcliff, and there – while she heads towards a degree in medicine – she meets James, a fourth year graduate student in history. She is ‘other’ because she is a woman studying in a field that is dominated by men; he is ‘other’ because he’s Chinese. All Marilyn knows is that “she wanted this man in her life. Something inside her said, He understands. What it’s like to be different.”
Marilyn’s career plans are pre-empted when she gets pregnant. She and James marry and move to Ohio. Of course, their union wouldn’t be quite so problematic now (I’d like to think, but there are always some people….), but it’s the late 50s when they marry. Another world, another time. And life, fraught as it is, moves on. But why is it fraught? Because James grew up attending private school for free because his mother worked there as the cook and his father the janitor? Because he never fit in anywhere? Because Marilyn didn’t want the life her mother had? Because of dreams deferred? And what happens when our parents’ lives are complicated and damaged by their own childhoods? Ah, we all know the answer to that question, right? It all trickles down.
Everything I Never Told You is an astounding, complex and heart-breaking look at the secrets we keep, not only from our families but from ourselves. Why we keep them, and the damage caused because of it, is just part of what happens in Ng’s book. The horrible longing we feel to crack ourselves open, the desire for true communication and intimacy, is another part. There wasn’t a single character in this novel I didn’t want to hug – I loved them all. That they were so fabulously human and fragile is a testament to Ng’s talent.
Highly (times a billion) recommended.