(Book Review) Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

By Melinda Guerra

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.  1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”
– page 1

everythingThe first paragraph of Celeste Ng’s (pronounced “ing”) debut novel Everything I Never Told You introduces us not only to Lydia (dramatically, albeit briefly), but also to her four family members whom we’ll follow over twelve chapters that span more than two decades. We discover quickly that the family is biracial, with three children born to their Chinese-American father and white Virginian mother.  In 1958, when the two married, interracial marriage was still illegal in more than half the country; it was a Virginia couple who would bring the case (Loving v. Virginia) that led to the Supreme Court’s ruling Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws as unconstitutional.

Lydia’s parents, Marilyn and James, are marked by differences that extend beyond their racial makeup: when they meet, both are setting out to be as different as possible from their parents, Marilyn by eschewing the dreams her mother has for her to be a Betty Crocker housewife, choosing instead to pursue her medical degree at Harvard, and James by compensating for years of feeling like an outsider by attending Harvard and studying “the most quintessentially American subject he could find–cowboys.”

Having set up their lives together as people seeking to be vastly different from their own parents, they raise their children together seemingly not conscious of the pronounced ways that their own paths have shaped their aspirations for and frustrations with their children–Nath, getting ready to head off to college, Hannah, watching all of the bustle of her family, and Lydia – the middle child who seems to be her mother’s favorite.

Marilyn would not be like her own mother, shunting her daughter toward husband and house, a life spent safely behind a deadbolt. She would help Lydia do everything she was capable of. She would spend the rest of her years guiding Lydia, sheltering her, the way you tended a prize rose: helping it grow, propping it with stakes, arching each stem toward perfection. In Marilyn’s belly, Hannah began to fidget and kick, but her mother could not yet feel it.  She buried her nose in Lydia’s hair and made silent promises. Never to tell her to sit up straight, to find a husband, to keep a house. Never to suggest that there were jobs or lives or worlds not meant for her; never to let her hear doctor and think only man.
– page 147

Everything I Never Told You is a story in which it’s easy to find ourselves, our siblings, our parents, our children, and our friends, if only we’re willing to let ourselves be uncomfortable enough to admit that our motives aren’t always clear, our encouragement sometimes more a circumstance of our own shadows than an impartial understanding of what someone needs.  Ng spins a beautiful story for us (herself an Asian-American woman married to a white man) that confronts head-on issues of race and gender, of the pressures that come both with being ostracized by the crowd and being an unwilling part of it, of the burden of bearing grief and fury and hurt and secrets, and of the sometimes paralyzing desire we feel to belong.

I’m tempted to say more about the book, but in the interest of an upcoming Bookish meeting to discuss it, I’m going to hold my more evaluative comments, questions, and disclosures for then.   If you’re still on the fence about signing up to join us for next month’s inaugural meeting–discussing Everything I Never Told You–let me encourage you to check out an excerpt of the book by clicking here.   To reserve your space in our meeting–and your copy of the book from the library–email me: gplbookclub at gmail dot com.

To read more about Bookish you can check out our interview with Melinda from last week here.


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