Title: Everything I Never Told You (2014)
Author: Celeste Ng
Extent: 304 pages
Release Date: June 26, 2014
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.
The first time I heard of Everything I Never Told You, I was at The Strand, New York City, with my publishing classmates from Melbourne. I picked up the book, read the first line — Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. — and immediately resolved to buy it when I get back home. My mistake was not writing an actual note, as I promptly forgot about it… at least until I saw it again in the library recently.
This book is about the Lees in the aftermath of favourite child Lydia’s disappearance and death. A Chinese American family in a time where interracial relationships were not at all common, they were outsiders in their community: civil but not friendly, stable but not rooted, accepted but generally ignored. The story isn’t centred around answering “how and why is Lydia dead?” but more on exploring the dynamics of the Lee family, past and present: James and Marilyn’s marriage, their relationship with their three children, and each person’s motivations, fears, goals and lives.
How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers…Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.
Everything I Never Told You might sound like a thriller, but to me it was much, much more of a character study. Not one character actually steals the spotlight — everyone feels equally important. There’s James, the father, born and raised in America but not once belonging because of his skin colour and race; Marilyn, the stay-at-home mum who’s living a life she had never ever wanted; Nathan, the first child, who feels overshadowed by his sister; Lydia, the favoured middle, dead of unknown causes; and finally Hannah, the forgotten youngest.
The writing is simple yet beautiful, focused on the little things, and there’s a subtle sense of sadness and trappedness that carries the story. The Lees aren’t unhappy, per se, but there is so, so much going on underneath the surface, things that they never tell each other, things that they keep quiet about for fear of change or something else. These characters are realistic, three-dimensional, so flawed and so complex.
“The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you–whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.”
A major reason why I love this book so much, I will admit, is because I really related to a lot of it. Everything I Never Told You deals with so many things so beautifully: parent-child relationships, expectations and the weight of them, race and racism, interracial and family relationships, discrimination and miscegenation, acceptance and belonging, shame and secrets. It’s a portrayal of a family so real, so familiar, so close to my heart, that I saw myself in each and every one of the characters.
I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the story, but fall in love I did, so much that I had trouble letting go of the characters when I finished. The pacing might be slow, yes, but it is perfect for the kind of character exploration that it is. This is going in my favourites list for sure. 💙