“The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you — whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.”
In Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, readers are exposed to a world of opposites. Teenager Lydia Lee is the center of her parents’ world. She is intelligent, beautiful, and — apparently — well-liked by her peers. Lydia is the definition of “poster child.” On the other hand, her older brother, Nath, is nothing but a disappointment to their father; whereas Hannah, the youngest child, is rarely acknowledged throughout the entire novel.
Set in 1970s Ohio, Lydia’s parents (Marilyn and James) struggle to defy the uncomfortable racism that comes with the marriage of a white woman and Chinese man during a racially-intolerant era. Initially, their love was enough to offset judgmental gazes, backhanded remarks, and blatant slurs. In time, though, James’ insecurities about his childhood and ethnicity niggle away at his core until he is disenchanted with anything but his favorite: Lydia. Meanwhile, Marilyn attempts to convince herself that her dreams of becoming a scientist — which evaporated with the unplanned conception of Nath — are no longer vital to her existence. Without acknowledging the truth to herself, she begins to pressure Lydia into fulfilling the life goals she so hastily relinquished.
While both parents worship at the altar of Lydia as a result of their own misgivings and insecurities, Lydia strives to be everything for everyone. She worships her older brother and the two share a strong bond for years . . . until he, too, becomes disenchanted with the trajectory of his life and begins to harbor feelings of jealousy and bitterness toward his younger sister. His unexpected rejection has a disastrous effect on Lydia, who wants nothing more than to please everyone and be understood by someone.
When Lydia goes missing, readers embark on a journey blended with familial reflections and Lydia’s own account in an effort to piece together the truth. Suspicions abound. Blame is placed, shifted, reassigned. A family that once appeared to have it all quickly unravels at their frayed seams in the wake of Lydia’s disappearance, and readers are asked to imagine the weight of dreams deferred and childhood insecurities that never quite fade.
This beautifully constructed debut novel tells a striking tale of a family striving in multiple directions — to cut ties with their ethnicity, to break through gender norms, to blend in, to stand out. The writing is poetic and enchanting, and I feverishly read this novel in a few sittings. A true must-read.
Rating: 5/5 — Run, don’t walk, to your nearest library or bookstore TODAY for a copy of this poignant read.