Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Book Review: 'Everything I Never Told You: A Novel' by Celeste Ng

Review by Susan Grigsby

Families are probably the most mysterious strangers we will ever know. Sure, we know their names and that one is a brother or a father or sister or mother, but our image of them is one that we form very young and rarely re-evalutate.
My older brother used to drive down from Northern California to spend the Thanksgiving weekend with us every year starting about fifteen years ago. For many years before that, we really did not like each other very much. Mostly because we were still clinging to the images that we had carried from childhood.
Strange how that works. Although I had allowed myself to change and grow, my family members always seemed static in my mind. I learned to break through those images to re-discover who these people are that I call my relatives as did my older brother. We became very close friends and I miss him every year around this time.

Having lived family drama, I wasn't much interested in a mystery that focused on it, and so allowed this one to sit on my metaphorical nightstand for way too long before I finally picked it up and started reading.
Everything I Never Told You: A Novel
by Celeste Ng
Published by Penguin Press
June 26th 2014
297 pages

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.
And so begins one of the most remarkable debut novels that I have ever read for this series. A 16 year-old girl disappeared one morning in 1977. Later, her body is found in a nearby lake in the small Ohio town where the family lives. Accident, murder, or suicide?
Celeste Ng smoothly alternates points of view and switches back and forth between the fifties, sixties and seventies to introduce us to the main characters of the Lee family.
James Lee is a first generation Chinese American who was a teaching assistant at Harvard when he met Marilyn Walker, a Virginia student, studying to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. They fall in love, she gets pregnant, they marry and move to Ohio where James takes a teaching position at Middlewood College and Marilyn, having put aside her own career ambitions, raises their three children, Nathan, Lydia and Hannah.
Lydia is the favorite, and the one onto whom James and Marilyn project their unfulfilled dreams and desires. Lydia, having suffered through the absence of her mother, who briefly left the family for some months while she was younger, will do anything to please her parents. She is quiet and responsible.
Her older brother, who dreams of space travel, and her younger sister are both pushed into the shadows by the focused love and attention that their parents shine only on Lydia, much to her own dismay.
Ng perfectly captures the family dynamic as regards the youngest daughter in lovely prose:
(And what about Hannah? They set up her nursery in the bedroom in the attic, where things that were not wanted were kept, and even when she got older, now and then each of them would forget, fleetingly, that she existed – as when Marilyn, setting four plates for dinner one night, did not realize her omission until Hannah reached the table. Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling tablecloths, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change.)
Hannah is described in parenthesis, as if even acknowledging her existence is furtive. The older brother, Nath, is aware of Lydia's discomfort with their parents' attention and pressure and sympathizes with her and usually provides support.

When Lydia dies, the family is shattered and each remaining member must work his way back into what they perceive the family to be, dealing with feelings of loss, anger, guilt and remorse. And needing to know who or what was responsible for Lydia's death. In seeking a resolution of that mystery, more secrets are revealed, secrets that each one of the family members carries deep in his or her heart.
In telling their stories, Ng carefully exposes the ever-present racism that James and his children deal with daily. America has never been kind to those whose look was not European.
While the Irish and the Germans and the Swedes crowded onto steamship decks, waving as the pale green torch of the Statue of Liberty came into view, the coolies had to find other means to reach the land where all men were created equal. ...  While the Norwegians and the Italians and the Russian Jews ferried from Ellis Island to Manhattan, fanning out by road and railway to Kansas and Nebraska and Minnesota, the Chinese who bluffed their way to California mostly stayed put.
As a child, I was a little younger than the character Lydia was, when my mother also went away. I was fifteen when my younger sister died suddenly so I found much to relate to in this novel. Celeste Ng has written about these intense emotional events with just the right delicate, touch. It is not maudlin, it is not unfeeling, but it is a finely balanced depiction without judgment. Perfectly on target.

Her writing is eloquent and her plotting reflects a craftsmanship one would expect from a more seasoned writer. Most of all, she has created a fresh, original story that was totally different from the one I was sure she was writing.

Editor's note: This review was
originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.

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