About the book:
Lydia is the favourite child of Marilyn and James Lee; a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfil 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 centre of every party. But Lydia is under pressures that have nothing to do with growing up in 1970s small town Ohio. Her father is an American born of first-generation Chinese immigrants, and his ethnicity, and hers, make them conspicuous in any setting. When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, James is consumed by guilt and sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to make someone accountable, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is convinced that local bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest in the family – Hannah – who observes far more than anyone realises and who may be the only one who knows what really happened.
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . .
With that startling line, Celeste Ng pulls you into the world of the Lee family following the death of the middle child, Lydia. Jumping between the present time and different times in the past, the book tells the story of how they got there and the consequences of Lydia’s death. The writing is compelling and beautifully crafted, and it touches topics such as race, gender and family relations in the 1970s.
Even though it took me awhile to finish it, the story pulls you in and keeps you guessing until the very end. The jumps between times makes it even more interesting as it takes you from one point in time to another, completely different, but still connected. This book is perfect character study; at least six different characters that you get to know deeply with the great narrative of a third person omniscient narrator. One of the great things Celeste Ng does with her characters is that you can’t seem to point out if you like them or not, and sometimes, they are all pretty unlikable. Flawed and complex, growing from page to page, there is not a single simple character. They feel real.
The parents, James and Marilyn, got together for all the wrong reasons. He wanted to blend in like her; She wanted to stand out like him. How they made it work? They had children. If it weren’t for Marilyn getting pregnant, the kind of idealised love between those two would have ended way sooner. Eventually, they settled into their lives though nether really got what they wanted, you could say Marilyn lost more than James. She gave up her dream, and though she almost went back to it, she had to give it up once more, for she was pregnant again. Even if it’s not explicitly said, she must resent James in some way for it but instead of turning on him, she pushes her dream on her daughter, and did this until her daughter was gone and was forced to face reality. It had not been science that Lydia had loved and Marilyn finally realised who her daughter really was. James, on his part, faded into the background, even with his affair being a luring around, it’s almost as an afterthought. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him at a times, his affair a clear attempt to feel something that had disappeared with time on his marriage. His final fight with Marilyn was expected and unexpected at the same time. You wanted it, them two finally expressing the feelings they’ve had hidden for so long, but you feared it, leave things unsaid and keep going as nothing ever happened. Lydia’s death was a catalysis for many characters but it was the definitely the push these two needed to have a more stable, equal relationship.
Nath, Lydia’s big brother and the only one who understood her, until he didn’t anymore. I felt for Nath all throughout the story. He stood back, accepted that he was not the favourite child and would have to do everything himself. Still, he couldn’t shake the fact that even in his greatest achievement, Lydia was the centre. Deep down, you can tell he blames himself for what happens, even if he tries to find someone else to blame (a.k.a Jack). He turned his back on his sister, no matter why, he left her without the only person she thought would never leave her. Yes, I feel sorry for him, but he also made me angry when he turned his back on her. After everything, who could he do that?
Now, when you talk about Nath and Lydia, there’s someone else that comes into play, and that is Jack. The whole book I wanted to know why Nath hated him so much and what was up with Jack and his interest with Lydia and Nath. It did not realise what was going on until it was plain and obvious: Jack has been in love with Nath since they meet as children! I mean, could I have swoon louder? Yes, yes I could have. It pained me so much to see Jack suffer when Nath mistreated him but I had hope by the end. I had hope that on those final moments in the book, Nath realised and something good came out of it. Lydia knew, I think, and Hannah soon found out and tried to help. Regarding Jack himself, he was just the sweetest. Playboy who actually turns out to be a gay in the closet in love with the guy that sees him as the enemy? Yes, I loved him. He was a friend to Lydia when she needed one and suffered so much after her death. Only good things for him after the end. I pray.
Hannah, oh sweet, invisible Hannah. The little sister no one ever saw or cared about. I felt so bad for her. Always there but never noticed. She only wanted to be loved and close to her family. Taking things from them that she thought they loved was her way of being close to them. She finally got seen at the end, by her brother and her mother, even if it took Lydia dying for it to happen. In a way, she will get the unconditional love without demands that Lydia wished for.
Finally, we get to Lydia, the main protagonist who turns everyone’s lives around. Until the very end, even after the flashback scene with Nath in the lake, I thought she had committed suicide. That she had jumped into the lake to get away from the life she had made by giving up herself. But Lydia did not want to die. She wanted her life to change, like it had the first time she almost drowned in the lake, but there was no Nath to pull her out this time. Lydia wanted her mother to be happy and stay so she took her mother’s dream and made it her own because that’s what Marilyn wanted. She gave her own life for her family twice. As a child and when she died. Lydia did not know it would happen, but just as she had helped her mother stay, she helped her family deal with all their unspoken issues by dying. Do I agree with her decisions? Absolutely no. She should have stood up for herself, like Nath did by wanting to go to university away, instead of giving in to everything her parents wanted. But, in a way, I think I understand her and everything she did.
In conclusion, from beginning to end, Everything I Never Told You is a perfectly crafted book that will make you think and feel. It will not leave you indifferent. A must-read for everyone.
About the author:
Celeste Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio. She attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, won the Hopwood Award, the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the American Library Association’s Alex Award. She is a 2016 National Endowment for the Arts Fellow, and she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.