Published by Penguin Press on June 26th 2014
Genres: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction, LGBTQ+
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.
A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.
This book opens with the line: Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
Everything I Never Told You is a story about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. At the beginning of the book, the favourite daughter of the Lee family, Lydia, goes missing and turns up dead in a lake. From this synopsis it may sound like a mystery suspense or an investigative novel but that really isn’t the case. The book is not plot-driven at all but is a very slow-burning, character-driven read. It’s about loss and grief and family dynamics. About secrets and miscommunication, but also gender, race and interracial relationships.
Rather than having the whole book be about Lydia and the way she died, Celeste Ng uses her death as a catalyst to portray many of the underlying psychological issues going on within this family. The author slowly unravels the family’s history for us and explains the events that led up to Lydia’s death, including how the parents were raised, how their decisions were impacted by their upbringing and how, in turn, that affected the way they raised their own children.
“Everything I Never Told You” is the best possible title for this book. It’s all about a family that cannot communicate with one another on any level. They are all holding things in, internalising what they’re feeling and can’t express their fears and desires to each other, or sometimes even themselves. Interestingly, the reader often knows more about the characters and their emotions than they know about each other and it is thus up to the reader to put the puzzle pieces together and understand what led to Lydia’s eventual death. We’re switching between different points-of-view as well as different timelines and this adds layers to the book and helps truly bring out the complexity and nuanced nature of these characters.
For their own individual reasons both these parents are projecting all their dreams and ambitions onto their kids, especially Lydia, and we witness how it hurts her, destroys her.
“So every time her mother said Do you want –? she had said yes. She knew what her parents had longed for, without them saying a word, and she had wanted them happy. She had kept her promise.”
So this book really deals with expectations. Expectations from society, from your family, from your parents. Lydia gets all these expectations placed upon her while her siblings essentially get neglected. Both turn out to be predictably harmful.
“That long-ago day, sitting in this very spot on the dock, she had already begun to feel it: how hard it would be to inherit their parent’s dreams. How suffocating to be so loved. She had felt Nath’s hands on her shoulders and been almost grateful to fall forward, to let herself sink.”
This book is incredibly quiet and subtle but full of tension. A tension that builds and builds until you feel like you’re going to explode. The characters felt so much like real people: extremely flawed to the point of being almost unlikeable, and yet I could understand where they were coming from, even if I couldn’t forgive them for their actions.
Celeste Ng’s prose is stunning and the book had such an emotional impact on me. It has stayed with me and I still think about it now, weeks after I finished. If you’re looking for a literary fiction novel that is outstandingly written, has rich, well-drawn characters and features diversity, look no further. I can’t recommend Everything I Never Told You enough. One of my favourites of the year.
“Before that she hadn’t realized how fragile happiness was, how if you were careless, you could knock it over and shatter it.”