Book Review: Everything I Never Told You

“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.”

So begins Celeste Ng's chilling debut novel, Everything I Never Told Youwhich tells the tragic story of the Lees, a Chinese-American family living in Ohio in the 1970s. From the start, we know that the middle daughter, Lydia, is dead, but we don't know how, or why. Such an opening might lead one to believe that the book will be a mystery or a thriller as the family or the police try to get to the bottom of Lydia's disappearance. But while there are some small elements of both genres in the story, Ng is more interested in painting the picture of an interracial family struggling to fit in in the American Midwest. Almost immediately after finding out what happened to Lydia, the story flashes back to tell us how the Lees became a family, mostly by focusing on the parents. 

James Lee is the son of Chinese immigrants who overcame quite a bit of racism to become a university professor. Marilyn, his wife, always dreamed of becoming a doctor and was well on her way when she met James as one of his students. As two people rebelling against societal expectations, James as a Chinese-American putting up with people pulling their eyes into slits when they see him and in more extreme cases, throwing rocks at his car, and Marilyn as a woman who dreams of being a doctor when her mother only dreams of finding a husband and being a homemaker, the two find a kinship and fall in love. When Marilyn gets pregnant, they rush into marriage, but are put off by Marilyn's mother's disgust at the fact that her daughter is marrying someone of Asian descent. "It's not right," she tells Marilyn as James overhears, and these words haunt both of them for much of their lives. 

The Lees have three children: there is Nath, the eldest, who follows his parents' path to Harvard; Lydia, the middle child, on whom the Lees come to pin all of their unfulfilled hopes and dreams; and then Hannah, the youngest and the quietest, largely ignored by them all, who barely speaks but notices everything. Lydia's death tears at the already fragile fabric of this tenuous family, as each member in turn attempts to come to grips with her loss in their own way. James turns to the arms of his Chinese-American assistant teacher, Marilyn locks herself in Lydia's room for hours at a time, Nath takes it upon himself to investigate the neighborhood boy that Lydia spent so much time with towards the end of her life, and Hannah collects objects and mementos from her family in order to keep a part of them close. 

By and large, this is a splendid, albeit heavy, book, but in many ways it sags under the weight of being a debut. There is no question that Ng's writing is mostly solid and assured, but in some places I felt that the prose took a turn almost toward the melodramatic. I know a book about the loss of a loved one should be dense, but this one at times feels a little too dense, almost unwieldy. The best writing should feel as if the author is not even trying, but I couldn't help but hear Ng underneath it all attempting to show us the Lees' pain and loss a little too bluntly. In quite a few places she connected some dots that I wished had been left up to the reader to connect.

The biggest overall issue for me, however, was with her structure. This book is unquestionably about the pressures that parents unwittingly put on their children, but we spend so much of the novel getting to know James and Marilyn and so little of it really getting to know Lydia, Nath and Hannah that there is a small but glaring disconnect between what happens to Lydia and what leads her there. While I won't give away the cause or method of her death, as finding that out is partly what makes the story interesting, I will say that we don't really start to see Lydia herself until two-thirds of the way through the book, and by then I it's too little, too late. 

Ng still gets high praise for writing a novel about a family that looks different than most families we see in American fiction, and I'm excited to see what she does next. Everything I Never Told You is definitely a solid debut: a little rocky in places, but ultimately a powerfully redemptive look at love and loss.