EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU is a devastating family drama about the consequences of good intentions

Everything I Never Told You   Celeste-Ng

Everything I Never Told You

By Celeste Ng

The Penguin Press, 6/26/14

$26.95, 292 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 received a starred review from Booklist. 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.

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Hidden Gems: Author Celeste Ng recommends THE CELESTIALS by Karen Shepard

The Celestials  Karen Shepard

Celeste Ng’s debut novel, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU (Penguin Press), was published on June 26. The initial response from reviewers and early readers has been extremely positive, bordering on ecstatic. Several magazines have selected it as a recommended summer read. Today, Celeste drops by to share a recommendation for a book she loves and thinks you will, too. 

“Hidden gem” is exactly the right term for Karen Shepard’s fourth novel, The Celestials. I’ll admit it first caught my eye for the most superficial of reasons, the title’s similarity to my own name.  But once I’d picked up the book, I was immediately drawn in.

First, the “hidden” part: on the outside, The Celestials is an unassuming little book—the cover a demure tan, with a single black-and-white photo of a Chinese man to one side—put out by a small press, Tin House Books.  It’s based on a long-hidden story from history: in 1870, Calvin Sampson brings seventy-five Chinese workers—the “Celestials” of the title—to his factory in North Adams, Massachusetts.  The problem is, the Chinese workers are unwitting strikebreakers, and their presence stokes tension everywhere: between the laborers and the factory’s management, between the townspeople and the Celestials themselves.  In the novel, things soon reach a breaking point when Sampson’s wife, Julia, gives birth to a half-Chinese child.  Aren’t you intrigued already?

But let’s not forget the “gem” part: Shepard writes in the relatively uncommon omniscient voice, which is no less beautiful here for its authority and simplicity.  Instead, the voice allows her narrative to roam freely between characters, bringing insight into their fears, jealousies, and passions: the town of North Adams has “a peculiarly happy and peaceful look, as if a tea set were balanced in the hollow of God’s large hand; a mother, looking at her infant, feels “suddenly depleted, a wool blanket wet and wrung out.”  The narration is a particularly brilliant decision in the case of Charlie—the foreman of the Chinese workers—and the other Celestials: they may speak only pidgin English, but the omniscient point of view allows them to express their thoughts fluently and eloquently.  It also allows Shepard to weave in historical facts like landscape, giving context to the events in this tiny factory town.

Although she confronts weighty topics of bias, discrimination, and cultural clash, Shepard handles these topics delicately, without ever becoming didactic or moralistic.  Instead, the novel presents a nuanced group portrait of one community—townspeople and Celestials alike—wrestling with questions of identity, otherness, and the possibility of connection.  The portrait is literal as well as literary: photographs of Chinese workers from the era dot the text, challenging the reader to confront these forgotten images of the past. (For more on that, see Shepard’s “Research Notes” at Necessary Fiction).

The overall effect is indeed gemlike, multifaceted and gleaming.  Part historical study, part family story, The Celestials is an examination of love across lines of all kinds—racial, class, family, gender—that deserves a wider audience.

Everything I Never Told You  Celeste-Ng