Title & Author: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Genre: Literary Fiction
Synopsis (from Amazon):
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.
When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened.
After just finishing Everything I Never Told You, I think it’s one of the most perfect books I’ve ever read. It appeared on a number of “Best Books of 2014” lists and I can see why.
EINTY is a look into the mixed-race (Chinese and Caucasian) Lee family living in 1970s Ohio. The book begins with Lydia having died, although nobody realizes it yet. Lydia is the middle child in the family, adored by her parents Marilyn and James – she’s the axis on which the family’s world spins. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an only child so I have no experience with this sibling business but I constantly felt awful for siblings Nath and Hannah while reading this. Nath’s accomplishments and interests were often overshadowed by what Lydia wanted; Hannah was mostly forgotten about by everyone.
Family matriarch Marilyn grew up in the 1950s, when only certain paths were available for women. Her mother was a high school home ec teacher; descriptions of her constantly made me think of ’50s ads showing a smiling woman pulling a perfectly browned roast chicken from the oven while wearing an immaculate A-line dress, heels and a smile perfected by lipstick. Marilyn was much more interested in science and excelled at physics – she wanted to be a doctor. After being accepted to college Marilyn’s mother told her that she’d meet a lot of nice Harvard men, presumably to earn her MRS degree.
Marilyn knew that she didn’t want the life her mother led, the typical path that society allowed for women at the time. Meeting James and – later – getting married after discovering she was pregnant paused her college career for a number of years. Nath was born and Lydia followed a few years after. Marilyn wanted to give her daughter all the options that she had been denied (or which had been made difficult) in her own life.
James, on the other hand, just wanted to fit in. As the only Asian-American in an all-white school, he constantly stood out and wanted to blend wherever possible. He never really had friends in his childhood and devoted himself to studies. As a studious outcast in an all-white school, Nath tends to remind James of his own shortcomings growing up; meanwhile Lydia is a perfect blend of both her parents, with Marilyn’s blue eyes and James’ dark hair. Looking at her reminds him of his wife more than himself.
Lydia bore the brunt of both parents’ regrets, despite their good intentions. She wanted to please her mother by excelling in math and science; to please her father by being social with classmates and making friends. Marilyn thought that Lydia enjoyed science and never realized that she did it to appease her mother; James thought that Lydia had friends but she actually faked phone calls that she knew he’d overhear in order to make him happy. She had made a promise to her mother (that Marilyn never knew about) to always listen to her mother if she would come back; when Marilyn returns, Lydia takes this promise to heart and goes along with their wishes, never considering what would make her happy but thinking only of pleasing her parents.
EINTY takes a deep look at complicated dynamics in the Lee family: parents who want the best for their child/ren but unintentionally set them up for failure/sadness; an older brother who is just as smart as, if not smarter than, his sister but whose accomplishments are mostly disregarded; the youngest child, somewhat of an afterthought, who just wants a bit of time and attention; the middle daughter who doesn’t relish the extra attention from her parents and has never had a chance to think about what she wants in life. The book also shows how even having all the physical evidence can’t necessarily explain someone’s actions – you’re never able to look inside their head to find the root cause.
Aside from the fantastic unfolding of the characters, I found the writing in this book to be exquisite! Every chapter had fantastic cross cuts that seamlessly established action happening concurrently at separate locations. I’ve rarely had a story unfold in a way that makes me think about the types of shots or edits that would be used for the movie version of said story [my brain doesn’t work that way], but I could picture it for many of the scenes in the book. It was a beautiful stylistic device.
Verdict: I enjoyed this book from beginning and found it to be a fantastic work. It was well-written and felt like the perfect length; I was left curious about the family’s future and not wishing for the end. I also appreciate that it opened the door on a culture I don’t think I’ve read about in fiction – Asian-Americans. This was Ng’s debut novel and I can’t wait to read more from her!
Recommended for: those who enjoy literary fiction in general or want a glimpse back to a not-long-ago period of America’s past. The story also had some themes in common with Wolf in White Van (although EINTY wasn’t as sad to me somehow) so you might like EINTY if you enjoyed that one. Despite the opening sentences, I didn’t really consider it a real mystery but more a look at loss and grief within a family.