Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”
So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.
Lydia dies at the beginning. Lydia the lonely; Lydia the henpecked; Lydia the prodigy. She dies, and we don’t know why. She dies, and we see her family attempt to return to normalcy, to pick up the pieces and repair them, to begin to understand what’s happened.
Ng smacks us with this tragedy, and then masterfully guides us through the family’s past - how mum and dad met, the childhood of the three siblings. Each life-shaping moment, small and large, is displayed for our voyeuristic eyes to absorb, everything pointing to the monumental event of Lydia’s death.
The words are beautiful, poignant, and unfathomably engaging. I wanted to spend lots of time with this book, slowly exploring everyone’s motivations and deepest emotions. Instead, I barrelled through the pages, desperate for more, until I came to the end far too quickly.
Ng’s intricate commentary on the inner workings of the Lee family is heartbreaking yet relatable. All dependent on each other without realising, all holding secret dreams, all their own horribly tragic person. She makes important observations on living as a Chinese-American family, on expectation, on homosexuality, on oppression. That the novel was set in the sixties and seventies meant that all of the above were more difficult to live with than they are today.
All of us have secret feelings we’ve never told anyone. They can guess, but no one can truly know us until we open up; until we make our humanity clear, and let our love out. With Everything I Never Told You, Ng shows us one scenario of what could happen if we don’t.
I adored this book. I’ve just read over everything I’ve written and my words haven’t conveyed just how much this made my heart burst. I doubt there are words I could write that ever would.