Saturday, August 23, 2014

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

From the first sentence--"Lydia is dead"--you know Everything I Never Told You is going to be sad, and it is so very sad. Lydia is the 15-year-old middle child of James and Marilyn Lee, their acknowledged favorite. One morning, Lydia isn't in her bed; when she is eventually found dead in a nearby lake, the family falls apart. But chapters about the past, intermingled with those focused on the weeks after the tragedy, reveal that the family was falling apart for years.

Lydia was a focal point for the family's unhappiness. She got more attention than brother Nath and little sister Hannah but also was subjected to greater pressure. James, a Chinese American history professor who never felt like he fit, wanted Lydia to be popular. He gave her dresses he bought off mannequins in store windows because he assumed they were "in"; he pressured her to call her friends (she often pretended to be talking on the phone but there was no one on the line); he gave her How to Win Friends and Influence People as a Christmas gift. Marilyn, his Anglo wife gave up her dream of being a doctor--still an unusual goal for a girl in the late 1950s--to marry James. She wanted Lydia to be a scientist, and she pressured her daughter to do well in school and gave her scientific tomes and biographies of female scientists for Christmas.

Lydia was miserable--she was failing physics, she had only one friend, and she was so desperately unhappy about her brother's impending departure for college that she hid his acceptance letter from Harvard. Both before and after Lydia's death, Nath could not wait to escape his family and the small Ohio town where he too felt totally out of place. Meanwhile, Hannah was so starved for attention that she stole from her family members, squirreling away small objects in her room. During conflict, she could often be found rolled into a ball under a table.

While there is some "mystery" about what happened to Lydia, the real story is how little people know even those they love most and think they know best. The members of the Lee family love each other--and the author provides an ending that builds on that love (somewhat overly optimistically in my opinion)--but they really understand nothing about each other, despite their shared experience as outsiders in small town 1970s Ohio.

For all but the most self-confident parents, Everything I Never Told You cannot help but prompt reflection on well you know your own children, the expectations you placed on them, and the ways in which you failed them. For parents whose families were in some way different from the majority (my family would fall in this category), the reflection may be even more difficult. Nonetheless, I would recommend this book.

Favorite passages:
All afternoon Nath had played his record over and over, but he has finally let it wind to a stop, and now a thick silence, like fog, seeps out onto the landing.

Years of yearning had made her sensitive, the way a starving dog twitches its nostrils at the faintest scent of food. She could not mistake it. She recognized it at once: Love, one-way deep adoration that bounced off and did not bounce back; careful, quiet love that didn't care and went on anyway.

Years from now, they will still be arranging the pieces they know, puzzling over her features, redrawing her outlines in their minds. Sure that they've got her right this time, positive in this moment that they understand her completely, at last.

1 comment:

  1. A beautifully and sensitively written story that for many readers will seep into the crevices of painfully buried memories. Anyone who has ever experienced rejection, ridicule' or isolation caused by the bigotry of those who base their perceived superiority upon racial, ethnic, physical appearance or social status will understand and appreciate this skillfully constructed and emotionally compelling narrative. Highly recommended reading for any audience.