Everything I Never Told You, a 2014 novel that has garnered a long list of highly favorable reviews, awards, and other accolades, delivers a punch in its very first line: “Lydia is dead.” Lydia is Lydia Lee, the favored middle child of a mixed-race couple. Her father, James, a college professor, is American born of Asian descent, and her mother, Marilyn, a wannabe doctor who wound up a housewife, is white. Both parents dote on teenaged Lydia while also burdening her with the relentless expectation that she will fulfill all their own unmet dreams and needs. Marilyn intends for Lydia to become a doctor, while James wants her to be popular and pretty.
The book opens with Lydia’s disappearance and subsequent discovery at the bottom of a lake near her Ohio home. Upon this tragic foundation, Celeste Ng builds an intricate structure of aftermath and backstory, deftly weaving characters and events spanning twenty years, from the 1950s to the 1970s, into a tight and increasingly oppressive and dysfunctional framework. The story's perspective shifts among family members in alternating chapters.
The big question, of course, is “What happened!!??” How did their beloved daughter drown? Was it foul play? Suicide? Some horrible accident? We don’t find out until the end of the book. The author lays a trail of hints, clues, and suspects, one possible culprit being the wild and unsupervised son of a local divorcee, who was among the last to see Lydia alive.
Ng’s writing is fine and evocative, the societal circumstances she describes timely and fresh: the bigotry faced by Asians in America in the latter half of the twentieth century. We are now so accustomed to thinking of academic excellence, the surging Chinese economy, and the distinctly Asian flavor to our more multicultural cities, that it surprised me to realize that even educated, professional, American-born Chinese faced terrible discrimination (exacerbated in part by the Vietnam War) in so recent a past.
Ng excels at crafting sentences and at building (and resolving) an intricate plot. It is in the family dynamics she creates that I found my credulity stretched. Why is Lydia so favored, yet her older brother, Nath, an ardently-aspiring astronomer, elicits only rage or indifference from his parents? How can any parents consistently ignore a child, as the Lees do their youngest, Hannah? How could Marilyn abandon her family for months, not even leaving a note, in an early, aborted attempt to complete her education? Is it the parents’ favoritism that causes the siblings to turn on each other?
These questions pile up and as they did, I found myself liking the Lees less and less -- every one of them -- and unlikeable characters make for a less compelling story. The more I read the novel, the more I wanted to flee its characters. But, reading through the reviews, it appears my reaction constitutes a minority view. Read the book for yourself and see what you think!
~ Ann, Adult Services