How had it begun?
Like everything: with mothers and fathers.
Because of Lydia’s mother and father,
because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers.
(Excerpt from Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng)
Everything I Never Told You is an exquisite young adult novel at par with the best in the genre which is a remarkable feat considering it is Celeste Ng’s (pronounced ing) first novel. It is a veritable page-turner that opens with the words: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know it yet” and holds your attention in a tight grip to the very end.
Lydia is the favourite child of Chinese-American James Lee and blond blue-eyed Marilyn Lee. Her lifeless body is found in the local lake. Nobody knows what happened. Her death and her family’s grieving process lead us down a path that reveals the inner workings of her family and their many relationships. Without looking too hard, we easily see ourselves and our families in hers.
The story touches on racism in this case against Asians. It reveals immigrant parents’ high expectations and desires for a better life for their children. The many sacrifices they make towards that and the indignities they bear stoically. We see James, Lydia’s father desperately attempting to fit in and be accepted as a true American. We see Marilyn, Lydia’s mother struggle with making a different life from that of her mother who was a homemaker. We see her rise to the top in her class as a doctor in the making and be forced to give it up to raise her children. All the challenges unique to women, both her mother the homemaker and her in her journey to being a doctor. How she desperately wanted more for Lydia. How she wanted Lydia to live this life that she came so close to getting but didn’t really get.
We see Lydia’s siblings, Nathan and Hannah deal with the grief of losing their sister. We see them deal with the hardships of living under the shadow of Lydia, the beloved daughter. How it affected their relationships with their sister. How it shapes their relationship with their parents. We see their parents deal with the challenges of parenting and the specific challenges of raising mixed-race children in a racist society. The characters are incredibly human and so relatable, so flawed, and still so loveable, moving, and memorable.
Most of all, we get to see Lydia’s life. The unique challenges of the teenage years. The profound loneliness she felt. The incredible pressure she was subject to because of her position as the favourite child in the eyes of both her parents. The secrets she kept. The secrets they all kept really. The unspoken longing they all had. The many different ways they fell short and disappointed each other. All the things that remain unspoken in all our lives.
This is a profoundly moving story about life, about family, about love, about grief, about secrets, about the difficult choices we are forced to make, about the many influences especially those of the past, and the ways they shape our lives and everyday choices. This influence of the past on the present is done perfectly and is so very moving. It is a story about flawed people like us just being human. A story about all the ways we fail to understand each other, especially fail to understand those closest to us. And the many things we never tell each other.
Celeste Ng weaves a wonderful tale that grabs your heart and does not let up. It is a story for everyone, not just young adults. A story that everyone can identify with and that is guaranteed to stay with you long after you have turned the last page. Read Everything I Never Told You. Pick it up and lose yourself in it one of these weekends. You will not regret it.
Check out this book review on Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero