A haunting debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation.
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet….
So begins the story in this exquisite debut novel about a Chinese American family living in a small town in 1970s 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’ 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 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.
A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping pause-resister and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.
Synopsis source: Goodreads
No one does character portraits quite like Celeste Ng. This is my second novel of hers (the first being Little Fires Everywhere), and while this is a very different story, the means with which she writes her novels is stunning in its complexity and nuance.
The story is set in 1970s America and features feminism, immigration, miscegenation, and racism, and is a bit of a coming of age story as well. The first line of the book grabs you and never really lets you go. There are so many layers that drive this story all the way to its heart-wrenching conclusion, the death of the beloved daughter of Marilyn and James Lee and the way each member of the Lee family copes with their grief. It is sort of like getting a peek at the inner workings of a highly sophisticated clock, everything falling into place just so and working in perfect synchronicity.
Each character has a past that influences their decisions, starting with James and Marylin before they ever even set eyes on one another. We see how their upbringing influences their needs and wants as young adults, leading them to choose their partners accordingly. Getting to know James and Marylin individually and as they became a couple, I was reminded of Newton’s third law of physics that every action has an equal but opposite reaction. They both wanted opposite things in life, which worked to attract them to one another, but also worked to make everything start to fall apart.
James, a Chinese-American who wants nothing more than to fit in among his white peers, teaches the one history course that is as American as it gets, American cowboys. But no matter that he speaks with no accent, works at the same place, received the highest education and is like them in all the ways except for how he looks, James stands out in 70’s era white America. Then he meets Marilyn, who he sees as his ticket to fitting in.
Conversely, Marilyn, raised with the expectation that she goes to college to meet a man and settle down to keep a house and raise a family, wants to do something more meaningful with her life than to be trapped in what she see as the same meaningless life her mother had. She goes to college with aspirations of becoming a doctor. She meets James and sees her relationship with him to be another way of breaking the mold set for her by her mother and a patriarchal society. But then Marilyn becomes pregnant and puts her degree and career on hold to be a mother and wife. Then baby number two comes, and as the years pass, Marilyn reflects on her life and feels like she missed her chance. The choice she makes at this critical juncture influences every event that comes after, not just for her but for every member of the Lee household, from James all the way down to the youngest daughter, Hannah.
We see how each character’s insecurities cause them to misconstrue the words and actions of those around them and how those insecurities embitter them toward one another as well. James, who wanted nothing more growing up than to fit it and have friends, puts his dreams into his daughter Lydia, the only one of his children to inherit her mother’s beautiful blue eyes. Marilyn, who upon finding herself pregnant with her third child realizes that her chance to become a doctor has passed, also puts her dreams and aspirations onto Lydia. Jealous of the attention his sister receives while he receives barely any acknowledgement unless it is criticism from his father, he lashes out at his sister, only to realize that she feels trapped by their parents’ constant attention, weighed down by the high expectations they have set for her, and he then becomes the one person that understands Lydia, becoming a sort of crutch for her. Then there is Hannah, the youngest sibling, who only wants to be noticed, to be seen by her parents and siblings, but whose seemingly invisibility observes far more than any of them realize.
I loved how each member of the Lee family had a “role” to play. I know that it’s a fictional story and saying that they had their role to play is redundant in a way, but I found the parallel to real-life family dynamics very astute, how those roles and the expectations that come with them can be so heavy, and how eventually they wear you down. While we all desire to know what really happened to Lydia, it is not the focus of the story. The real story is in exploring all the decisions and resultant consequences, the thoughts and motivations of each character that lead up to Lydia’s death, witnessing the way each of the remaining family members copes with their grief, and watching to see if the insecurities and differences in their personalities breaks the family apart, or if they are able to heal together after their loss.
While I think that Little Fires Everywhere was better, this title certainly deserves your attention. If you enjoy works of literary fiction and in-depth character portraits, you would enjoy this book.
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