Everything I Never Told You
By Celeste Ng (Penguin Press, 2014)
“Lydia is dead.” These are the first three words in Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, so I am not spoiling anything by quoting them here. Sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee is an overachieving girl who hopes to be a doctor. She’s won science fair prizes, taken courses at the community college, and hung the periodic table of the elements on her wall. She appears to be the center of her family, a favorite of both parents Marilyn and James, a co-conspirator of sorts with her twelfth-grade brother Nath, and worshipped by ten-year-old sister Hannah.
We know before Lydia’s parents know that she is dead, and now our task, along with her family, is to figure out why. And there’s a lot of evidence to sift through. She is one of only two Asian students in her 1970s Ohio high school. She’s been hanging around with a senior boy known to spend time with many girls in the back seat of his VW Beetle. Her father, mother, and siblings are each carrying secrets that could explain Lydia’s death, but this is a family that leaves uncomfortable things in the past and never speaks of them again.
This not speaking to each other is poisonous. Ng writes in the third-person omniscient point of view to get us deep into each character’s tragedies, first picking at scars but then tearing them open and pushing us inside to get a look around. It’s a tough read. James has issues about being a Chinese American in parts of the country where he’s the only one. This means Marilyn, the Caucasian wife he met at Harvard, has issues of her own, some of them reaching back to before she met James. Their children suffer the trickle-down consequences of their parents’ issues, then add their complications, until our hearts break for each separately, then for each relationship in this wonderful but damaged family.
Ng’s writing is reason enough to read this. Her prose is smart but not overly literary, as novels in this upmarket fiction genre tend to be. She lays the symbolic visuals on a bit heavily, but she’s careful not to broadcast them too loudly, so that as the complexities of each character’s alienation unfold, we feel a kind of horror at the results while caring deeply for the people, perhaps granting some clemency for their bad decisions.
Who is most to blame for Lydia’s death? It’s not an easy question to answer, but weighing the considerations is one of the novel’s rewarding experiences, not in the way that a good whodunnit is rewarding because we solve the tricky mystery ahead of the protagonist, but in the way a good story is when it gives us characters we like and sympathize with, and enough rationale to enable our judgments. It’s excellent book group fodder for this reason.
A challenging read because of the content, but satisfying because excellently conceived characters.
Four stars of five.