Everything I Never Told You is the debut novel from Celeste Ng and was published in 2014. Everything I Never Told You is ostensibly a mystery novel but more than that it is the story of a family, and all of the varied and important ways that families make and shape us.
The story opens with the Lee family getting ready for school, a standard morning. The only thing amiss is that 15-year old Lydia hasn’t come down from her room yet to join her siblings for breakfast. Mrs. Lee goes up to wake her daughter but finds she isn’t in bed. As readers we know, from the opening line of the novel, that Lydia is dead. Her family though, will spend the rest of the novel coming to terms with this fact.
The Lees are not your typical 1970’s Ohio family. James Lee is an American born of Chinese-immigrant parents. Marilyn Lee is the blond-haired, blue-eyed All-American girl. James is American but all of his life experiences have taught him that he is “other”. From his earliest memories, James has always felt himself the outsider. So, when Marilyn, the embodiment of all that James believes is quintessentially American, comes into his life, his happiness is transcendent. With Marilyn, he finally feels acceptance. Marilyn was raised by a mother whose greatest ambition for her was that she meet a nice Harvard man to marry and with whom she could raise a family. (Not a bad ambition and not unlike the ambition of most girls in that time period.) Like James, Marilyn’s whole life has been shaped and pushed by someone else’s expectation. Unlike James, Marilyn doesn’t wish to fit any mold, on the contrary, she longs to stand out. To be a female doctor at a time when to be such a thing was almost unheard of.
But then, of course, life happens. James and Marilyn fall in love and in that love don’t see the things about them that are so glaring to others – an Asian man and a white woman, it makes no difference to them. When Marilyn finds out that she is pregnant, they marry, and they move to a small town in Ohio where James is offered a teaching position. Marilyn, in her final year of undergrad, quits school to raise her child, just like her mother always wanted, right? Except at Marilyn and James’ wedding, Marilyn’s mother tries to talk her out of the marriage. Not knowing that Marilyn is already pregnant, she begs her to think of her future children. They will always stand out, they will never belong. And while we know that Marilyn’s mother is simply racist, we also know from James’ experiences, sadly, that there is a hard truth in what she says.
Marilyn and James have three children together – Nath, Lydia and Hannah. Marilyn loves her family, we know that she does but with them all of her plans and ambitions are done. She has fulfilled her mother’s dream for her, and she hates that. Once, before Hannah is born, Marilyn leaves her family. She moves away while they are off at school and work, and she doesn’t come back. She goes to school, certain that she can become a doctor and then return to her family once she has realized her dreams. She can’t, of course, because after being gone for 9 weeks, she finds that she is pregnant. With this third child she knows that she must put her ambitions aside. And she does, until Lydia grows older.
Lydia is the favorite child and the entire family knows it. Nath is too like his father, Hannah is an afterthought (which I feel terrible even writing…poor Hannah!) Lydia has her mother’s blue eyes and her father’s dark hair. Lydia holds all of her parents’ greatest hopes. Her father only wanted to be well liked and popular in school; he wasn’t but Lydia can be. Her mother only wanted to break the mold, to be a female doctor; she couldn’t but Lydia can. Lydia’s desire to please her parents stems from her vivid memories of when her mother left. As a child she vowed to do whatever would make her parents happy because that meant that they would stay. It is a vow though, that will break her. The weight of her parents expectations and the way that they unconsciously but incessantly push her to be their ideal, is just excruciating to watch. It is especially difficult because we know that James and Marilyn want only the best for Lydia, they want her to fit in and feel like she can do anything she wants to do. They don’t want her to have the same difficulties and regrets that they experienced. But whats that saying? The road to Hell is paved with good intentions?
Lydia, for her part, leads a sort of double life. She does not have a group of friends, but she leads her father to believe she does. She does not like science and math and school projects and the road to doctorhood, but she leads her mother to believe she does. The only person who really knows Lydia, is her brother Nath. Nath has always been Lydia’s rock, her someone to hold on to when the pressure gets to be too much. But Nath is leaving for Harvard soon and Lydia knows that without him, she will have no one. Probably the most emotionally sensitive member of the Lee family is Hannah. Only Hannah sees that Lydia is sinking but as a child she doesn’t know why or how to help her sister. The Lee family is one that I think we can all relate to in some way and their struggle to relate to one another, and to be there for one another is very real.
Everything I Never Told You is an affecting portrait of a family struggling with unimaginable grief. My emotions on this one ran the gamut – sad, angry, guilt, pity and ultimately proud. I would definitely recommend Everything I Never Told You for anyone looking for a good mystery/family drama.