Day 14: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Set in 1977 in Ohio, the novel begins with the death of 16-year-old Lydia Lee, the favourite child of James, a Chinese-American history professor, and Marilyn, a Caucasian woman who dropped out of medical school to become a mother. The book is a mystery and a family drama which uncovers how she came to drown and what the impact of her death has been on her parents and two siblings.
The point of view is third person with the perspective shifting from one family member to another. These transitions between characters and time periods are done smoothly. In the end readers know the characters better than they know each other because we learn everything they have never told anyone else. Even Lydia’s viewpoint is included, so the reader knows her better than anyone else in the family. The siblings prove to be quite perceptive about their lost sister, but they too are missing pieces of the puzzle.
A major theme is the lack of understanding due to poor communication. There are so many missed opportunities for connections; feelings are not expressed “to ensure the terrain of the family did not change” (161). It is not just Lydia who kept secrets; everyone in the family has secret desires and motivations. James and Marilyn, for instance, do not discuss the past; when they married they made a pact “to let the past drift away, to stop asking questions, to look forward from then on, never back” (49). Hannah, the youngest child, often “vanishes into her room without a word” (68), her bedroom being “in the attic, where things that were not wanted were kept” (160). Nath and Lydia have a strong bond at first; the brother “as the only other person who understood their parents . . . had absorbed her miseries” (168); however, Lydia’s position as the favoured child causes Nath to become resentful and their relationship deteriorates.
Another theme is how our pasts affect our lives and those of our children though we may think otherwise. Because of their upbringings, the parents take actions that impact their family; several times, for instance, we are reminded that Marilyn’s absence from her family for nine weeks had an influence for ten years. Certainly James wants Lydia to be popular because as a child he had no friends, and Marilyn wants Lydia to become a doctor because she was not able to do so. And much of Lydia’s behaviour is explained by her having “absorbed her parents’ dreams” (160).
Prejudice is another theme. James feels he is not accepted because he is a visible minority, and certainly he has received his share of taunts. His children, the products of a biracial marriage, are also subjected to racial slurs. The newspaper headlines announcing “Oriental Girl Found Drowned in Pond” (60) highlight societal attitudes.
What is particularly impressive about the book is its realism. Because we are given characters’ backstories, their motivations and behaviour are totally understandable. How they react makes perfect sense.
I highly recommend this novel. Its three-dimensional characters, realistic plot, and thematic development make it a book of exceptional literary quality.