“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” These are the first two sentences that open Celeste Ng’s incredibly moving debut novel, “Everything I Never Told You.” I heard this title pop up numerous times during its release last year and just from reading this sentence, my original thought was, There’s no way I’d read a book like this. It just sounds way too sad.
And in many ways it is, as it follows a mixed race family in 1970’s Ohio in the aftermath of the untimely loss of beloved middle child Lydia. The family hurdles through secrets threatening to tear them apart and the past that’s out to chase them, all the while struggling to come to terms with what could have caused the death of an intelligent 16-year-old girl who was on her way to greatness.
For the longest time I refused to read it, but Ng, unknowingly, persuaded me otherwise. Within the year since her novel’s release, I’ve read countless interviews and think pieces she has published as a result of her literary success. What convinced me to at least start following her on Twitter is when I read her piece about Asian American female writers. From there, I’ve read her tweets- which oftentimes are enlightening and/or very humorous- and we’ve even gotten to interact a few times as well. I liked her as a person and as a thinker, which was what led me to finally decide to read “Everything I Never Told You.” I read it pretty quickly, and it wasn’t so much that it’s a quick read, but more because I found it difficult to put down.
Prior to making the conscious decision to read the novel, I was intrigued to hear that the story was centered around a mixed race family (half Chinese, half white to be precise). Despite the story taking a place a decade after the legalization of mixed race marriages in the United States, I liked how the story showed even in the 1970’s how unusual it was to see a family like the Lee family. Coming from a mixed race family myself, this was interesting to see. While there are definitely more mixed race families now as opposed to then, it’s rare to find such families portrayed in literature. Needless to say, that element added a dimension of authenticity to the book which, in turn, made it relate-able (to me anyway).
The book also explores the longtime struggles as far as race and gender roles go, and that is something that is hardly explored otherwise in fiction nowadays. Ng digs deep into James’ past as he had to overcome so many hardships and acts of racism, just because of his ethnicity. There’s a scene in the book where he’s arguing with his wife Marilyn about this at one point, claiming how she’ll never know what it’s like to feel like an outsider.
But Marilyn provides an effective counter, for her past exposes the reality of being born female at too early of a time. Her struggles show how she grew up with her mother pressuring her to become the perfect homemaker, and how she was oftentimes the only woman in the countless chemistry and physics classes she took while on the road to medical school.
It’s these past issues- James’ struggle of just wanting to fit in to society and Marilyn’s desire to not be limited in possibilities by her gender- that are eventually burdened on Lydia, and it’s this subplot that makes for an intricate part of the novel. Parents- or good parents anyway- generally want what is best for their children, but what Ng shows through her narrative is that just because you have good intentions for someone, doesn’t always translate to what the child necessarily needs- let alone wants- to be the best person possible. She makes the struggle feel real as Lydia makes her way through school, all at the expense of a dream that’s being approached in the wrong way.
That’s why James and Marilyn are easy to sympathize with. At the same time, so are Nath and Hannah, who are left in the wings for the most part as Lydia is constantly pushed to take center stage. You feel their sadness and their anger over hardly ever getting the same attention as their sister, as well as their compassion for the pressure she’s always under.
I like how the novel is written, stylistically-speaking. While the characters are left to figure out what led to Lydia’s death, it’s really the reader who gets to be the detective, as Ng unfolds backstory after backstory. As a result, you get to connect the dots to see why this person is this way or why this person says this advice regularly. I found that to be a smart move on the author’s part, as we jump back and forth between the events leading up to Lydia’s death and the aftermath.
I could go on and on about “Everything I Never Told You.” There are just too many good things to say about it. I’m so glad I didn’t let the sadness in it keep me away from reading it, for it’s a powerful novel with a lot of good insightful to issues that we are still dealing with even now.