Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

6 May, 2015

Everything I Never Told You

Our book group choice for February was one I’d heard a lot of buzz about in the year past, Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. I didn’t know much about the premise before I started but it’s one of those books that as soon as you start, you get that feeling, you know that it’s one that is going to stay with you. And I was right.

Everything I Never Told You is a tale of an ordinary family with just one difference; theirs is a mixed-race Chinese American family, the only one in their town. In a small college town in middle America, this one difference will simultaneously change and shape everyone and everything that happens to them. It is 1977 and 16 year old Lydia Lee has gone missing from her bed. Her parents James and Marilyn are trying to piece together the events of the days just before her disappearance, while her brother and sister, Nathan and Hannah, are not sure whether they should share the secrets so sacrosanct amongst siblings. When Lydia’s body is found in the nearby lake, their family life splinters as all they have believed in for so long is torn apart. Who was Lydia? And what happened to her?

What Ng is so adept at doing is teasing out the secrets and hidden yearnings of her characters. Like any family that looks outwardly normal, there will always be dreams that have been crushed and silenced, the reality often harsh and unforgiving. And it is no different here. James Lee is a tenured professor at a small college after his dreams of staying on at Harvard is so easily taken away from him. The son of Chinese immigrants who took jobs as a gardener and cook at a prestigious school to give their son the opportunity to secure a place to study there if he is bright enough, James only yearns for a normal American life and to fit in. And he finds this in Marilyn, who has never wanted to be pedestrian but who puts on hold her dream of becoming a doctor, to marry the man she unexpectedly falls in love with. They are so in love with each other, yearning to leave behind their unhappy childhoods that they do not see their past shaping the future of their three children, heavy with so much expectation and stifling with love. When Marilyn, unable to let go of her dream of becoming a doctor, runs away to finish her degree, this acts as a catalyst and irrevocably changes the family dynamic.

Ng’s subtle manipulation of the shifting dynamics within the Lee family is so masterfully done that it is only as you read on that it slowly dawns on you what has happened. The silent pressure on Lydia to achieve high grades in science so that she can fulfill her mother’s dream of becoming a doctor. The silent fear she has that if she doesn’t comply, her mother will leave her again. How Nath’s heart breaks a little every time his father sees a bit of himself in his son and looks disappointed. And Hannah, the youngest, always forgotten, learning not to be in the way. As the children grow and begin to chafe under the yoke of their parents expectations, their usually strong sibling ties fracture and they rebel. Nath will apply to Harvard, the only way to get his father to acknowledge his worth and as Lydia’s grades decline, she starts spending more time with Jack, their neighbour and Nath’s childhood enemy, to punish him. Each character deals with their hurt, humiliation and anger in such different ways, trying to push away and yet always returning because they are family. It is difficult to imagine the isolation and the segregation James and his children experience, the racism that is never fully overt and yet of which they are hyper-aware but Ng does this gently but with devastating effect. The disapproval of Marilyn’s mother which Marilyn so casually brushes aside but which pierces James’ heart at their wedding. The swallowed dreams, the claustrophobia of a small homogenous town, a child’s future that has been mapped out in concrete. It’s all there.

Ng manages to weave all the different strands of each character’s story, in and out from the past to the present without leaving the current nightmare of Lydia’s demise. And as each layer is peeled back, and you glimpse the anger, regret and hurt that has been experienced and suppressed, it is almost a miracle that each of them can survive the fallout of a loved one’s death.

However sad Everything I Never Told You is, Ng has created a novel of such tenderness. Her writing is gorgeous and yet spare but it reaches an emotional depth and complexity that you rarely find. It’s a beautiful book and probably one of the best I’ve read so far this year.

Advertisements

One Response to “Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng”

  1. itoeri Says:

    Sounds really promising. Will check it out.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: