Title: Everything I Never Told You
Author: Celeste Ng
The book opens with “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”
From then, the author sketches a portrait of Lydia’s family using different points of view to give insight into each family member’s state of mind on finding out that their sister and daughter is missing, and will eventually be found, dead.
The father James, a Chinese-American professor of American History; the mother, Marilyn, whose missing child was her favourite. Lydia is the one that took more after her with her blue eyes. The older brother- Nath – headed to Harvard and with more insight into his younger sister than his parents- who is their blissful ignorance were not aware of the isolated young girl’s lack of friends and the less-than-charmed high school existence they imagined she had; the youngest sister – Hannah – all too aware of Lydia’s favoured position in the family as her parents’ and brother’s favourite child and sibling.
Celeste Ng devotes a great deal of time outlining the characters- giving the reader just enough to fill in the rest of the picture, before filling in the details that give colour to the family dynamics and dysfunction of this middle-class family. On the backstory to Lydia’s parents – the disparate needs of the Chinese American man and the Caucasian woman, and on how it had all begun, Ng writes “because more than anything her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything her father had wanted to blend in”. Ng subtly referencing the father’s need to assimilate into a society that saw him as ‘other’ because at that time, in the 1960s in America, immigrant Chinese families lived at the margins of society at large and were relegated jobs that made them invisible. James’s character is carved out to be different, to stand out – a Chinese-American, American History professor educated at Harvard, while at the same time the author makes it such that the character wants to blend it and be more American.
James’s need to blend in apparent from the onset. Describing the beginnings of the romance between James and Marilyn, Ng writes of James’s perception of Marilyn when they first met…” he had not noticed her at all hers had been one of the pale pretty faces indistinguishable from the next, and though he would never fully realise it, this was the first reason he came to love her because she had blended in so perfectly because she had seemed so completely and utterly at home”. He has carefully erased everything that reminds him of his background, clamouring and holding on tight to being ‘American’.
For Marilyn, however, the attraction to James was because “he understands what it’s like to be different”. Herself an outsider – a Pre-med student at Radcliffe in the sixties, at a time when a woman studying science was an anomaly – she naturally gravitates towards James because of his difference. What brings them together is James’s need to blend in and assimilate and Marilyn’s want for something and someone different from the sandy-coloured boys of her youth.
Celeste Ng takes her time drawing out each family member’s reflection of their lives before and after Lydia’s death. She gives the reader insight into the fragmented family dynamics: Marilyn’s discontent and ennui with her life and her brief but soon aborted attempt to return to college and get her undergraduate degree – leaving James with a much younger Nath and Lydia – only to return 8 weeks later, pregnant with their third, Hannah. It is on her return that Marilyn finally gives up on her dream to become a doctor and now channels every bit of that ambition into her daughter – carefully guiding her to the sciences; speaking to her of a career in medicine; all the while failing to see Lydia’s mediocrity and remaining oblivious to Nath’s own brilliance.
Hannah, the youngest, lives at the periphery of everyone else’s life- much ignored; much lesser than, and very much starved of any form of love – that of her parents and of her siblings. She is also the most aware of the state of the family’s dysfunction. Hannah, whose “years of yearning had made her sensitive, the way a starving dog twitches its nostrils at the faintest scent of food” is attuned to every change in mood precipitated by Lydia’ presence; of her parents’ unfairly unbalanced doling out of gifts and attention; of their neighbour Jack’s keen interest in her brother Nath; of Lydia’s slow and steady unravelling under the increasing pressure to do well in the sciences – subjects that not only does not have an affinity for but is also is failing terribly.
Nath, whose relationship with Lydia is close, sees the attention given to her, but also sees her increasing unhappiness beneath all the attention and pressure. Their bond is tied to the summer their mother left them when they were also they had as their father disengaged from parenting them as he quietly immersed himself in his own loss.
Lydia, after her brief abandonment that one summer, loves the attention lavished on her, believing that loving and agreeing to everything her mother makes her do will keep her from leaving them again. She adapts to this new attention, forcing herself to wear the skin her mother wants for her – that of a future doctor, agreeing to everything, loving everything she is told to love, anything to keep her mother from leaving again. In those years when she should have been finding out what her interests are and developing her own personality, she is instead struggling at school, isolated – with no friends, and establishing the only real friendship she has with Jack, the boy next door.
In the months leading to her death, Ng deftly describes the young girl’s state of mind; of the impending loss as her brother prepares to head to college; of the realisation that she will be stuck with her parents, in small Middlewood, forever; and of the weight and pressure she feels under all of the attention and how “that attention came with expectations that – like snow – drifted and settled and crushed you with their weight.”
As much as the story is centred around Lydia’s death, it is a study of family and of the challenges faced by mixed-race families in a time when this was not the norm. It is also a reflection on the insidious nature of racism on the human psyche and of the generational baggage it can have. It is a story of the lies we tell ourselves when we want to see the world as we imagine it – without the flaws and imperfections. Celeste Ng brings all the human emotion into this book, carefully weaving the plot, drawing the characters, and teasing out insecurities and hurts, leaving the reader slightly breathless without making it feel too weighty. A highly recommended read.