Everything I Never Told You
By Celeste Ng
Penguin Books: May 12, 2015
$16.00, 320 pages
Few would argue with the premise that it is one of the key roles of parents to guide their children to a good life, and if at all possible, a better life than that of the parents. But how exactly should one accomplish this worthy goal? Does it require the child to obtain a college education. . . participate in the family’s faith tradition . . . engage in community service . . . get a part-time job during high school . . . travel?
Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, explores the many facets of this premise, particularly the effects of well-intentioned but flawed parents. The result is an absorbing and heartbreaking family drama.
We learn in the first line that 16-year-old “Lydia is dead.” Although we know within the first paragraph what has happened and how, we don’t know the answer to the essential question when a teenager is found dead: why. Everything I Never Told You, set in Ohio in 1977, is a character study of the Lee family, both as five individuals and as a unit with very complex dynamics. But it is also a literary mystery, as the narrative methodically investigates Lydia’s life to find the answer to her untimely death. Was it an accident, homicide, suicide? How did it happen and who was involved?
The pleasure in reading Ng’s book is in the way she unfolds the story. We work our way backwards through the lives of her father James, a Chinese-American who is a college professor, and her mother, Marilyn, a white woman from Virginia who marries James in 1958, when such a marriage is against the law in half the country. James has been scarred by his experiences growing up and in college; Marilyn feels her ambitious life plan was derailed by marriage and an early pregnancy. But they love each other and are determined to make their unorthodox marriage work.
Not surprisingly, they work out their psychological and emotional issues in the lives of their children, especially middle child Lydia. Her father is obsessed with Lydia fitting in and being socially successful. Her mother has a single-minded devotion to ensuring that Lydia receives the best education possible so that nothing can be denied her.
“Marilyn would not be like her own mother, shunting her daughter toward husband and house, a life spent safely behind a deadbolt. She would help Lydia do everything she was capable of. She would spend the rest of her years guiding Lydia, sheltering her, the way you tended a prize rose: helping it grow, propping it with stakes, arching each stem toward perfection.”
But what about Lydia? What does she want? Can she please her parents or will she disappoint them? Does her parents’ behavior put her in a pressure cooker or does she thrive under their attention and concern? Does she even know her own mind in this regard? What kind of life does she want to lead as a high school student and beyond? “And Lydia herself — the reluctant center of their universe — every day, she held the world together. She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within.”
The domestic situation is complicated by her relationship with her older brother Nathan. Despite his peerless academic performance, his parents seem to take him for granted. In the Lee home, it’s all Lydia, all the time. He has learned to accept this but a price is paid. He and Lydia have grown up nearly as close as twins, with a complex interdependence. “All their lives Nath had understood, better than anyone, the lexicon of their family, the things they could never truly explain to outsiders.” But a change occurs shortly before Lydia’s death. After the funeral, Nathan is determined to play detective and find Lydia’s killer.
The Lees’ youngest child, Hannah, seems almost like an afterthought in the family. But her quiet powers of observation allow her to play a key role in helping the Lees figure out what happened to Lydia.
As the title suggests, Lydia has been keeping many secrets from her family. They are not the obvious stuff of melodrama (sex, drug abuse, crime, etc.), but are instead potentially more powerful and destructive.
Ng manages this domestic dissection with aplomb. The story is told in a calm narrative voice that allows the facts to speak for themselves; they are persuasive enough that readers don’t need to be manipulated into an emotional reaction.
Everything I Never Told You was named an Amazon Best Book of the Month for July 2014 and was later chosen by Amazon as the Best Novel of 2014. Celeste Ng’s intimate understanding of these characters allows her to bring them to life, make you care about them, and then break your heart. Knowing the truth behind Lydia’s death will provide closure, but it is still devastating.