They have a familiar ring, and so we might imagine a story like The Lovely Bones, or some other mystery novel that takes us through the violent, terrifying last days of a teenage girl’s life: a rewound story of abduction and even darker things.
One critic speaks of Ng’s novel as a literary thriller. I suppose it qualifies.
But the word seems inappropriate.
There’s a pervasive sadness in the novel. It’s in part a leaden, immobilizing grief: the immediate, crushing pain that follows the news that sixteen year-old Lydia Lee’s body has been found at the bottom of a lake adjacent to her home in a small town in Ohio. And it’s the alienating sorrow that suffuses the Lee household in the aftermath.
But the Lee family has been unhappy for a long time, and as Celeste Ng intimates in her novel’s title, a pall of silence has hung over them for years, slowly suffocating them all.
On the surface, at least, the Lee family is functional. James Lee, Lydia’s father, is a Harvard graduate (Ph.D.) who teaches history at a local college; Marilyn, his wife, a former Radcliffe student, is the stay-at-home mother of Lydia, older brother Nathan, and Hannah, who’s almost eleven years younger than Lydia. Both Lydia and Nathan are disciplined, high-achieving high school students who seem destined for Ivy League futures. Nathan’s dream is to become an astronaut. Their lives appear to be rolling along a track built by James and Marilyn.
But appearances can not only be deceiving, they can be terrible burdens.
This is the case for James Lee, born in America, in 1932, to Chinese immigrants, and for the interracial children he has made with blond, blue-eyed Marilyn. Nathan is born shortly after their wedding which at the time—1958—would have been illegal in half of the states in the country.
But with dark hair offset by pale skin and her mother’s improbable blue eyes, Lydia is the golden child—the carrier of her parents’ radically divergent but equally immoderate aspirations.
While James wants nothing more than for his children to achieve the meritocratic American dream of mainstream success and acceptance into the fold, Marilyn has higher aspirations for Lydia, pushing her to achieve above and beyond Marilyn’s own frustrated dreams of a career in medicine—a dream that died silently, but not easily.
On the first page of chapter 2, we read:
«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. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible. »
What’s left for us to discover is how this all unfolded, and how it culminates in Lydia’s death.
I didn’t find this journey thrilling. Everything I Never Told You is not that kind of story. Instead, it’s a poignant, often beautiful, very insightful, compassionate and compelling glimpse into the lives of a small cast of characters. The tragedy of their shared lives is that every one of them—even young Hannah and Jack, the troubled teen who lives next door— express their love through diligent actions and obedient silences. In the Lee household, love almost always means saying nothing. And so, in order to shield each other from disapproval, disappointment or betrayal, each, in turn, holds something back or hides important truths, until it is too late.
The only reservation I have about Ng’s story is that it rests upon an almost direct cause-and-effect representation of the parent-child relationship, coming very close to showing that «The sins of the father [and in this case also the mother] are to be laid upon the children»
Still, Everything I Never Told You is a deft exploration of the resilience of love and of the secrets kept in even the most closely knit families. It’s also an eloquent treatment of the illusion of the «melting pot» and every other politically expedient metaphor that glosses over the reality of what it has meant, historically, in North America, to be different or alien in any way.