Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng’s debut, is a wonderful novel. It’s the story of the Lee family, who live in Middlewood, Ohio in 1977. James teaches at Middlewood College and Marilyn keeps house and cares for their three children, Lydia, Nath, and Hannah. It sounds a bit like your typical humdrum Midwestern middle-class home in that era, but it’s far from it. James is of Chinese descent and Marilyn is white, Lydia, Nath, and Hannah are the only Asian kids in their school, and their story has no shortage of drama.
Before I was even finished with the book, I knew that this was a special story that would stick with me, but I wasn’t yet certain why. As I read, despite that it was an overwhelmingly sad experience, I felt a kind of nostalgia for the warmth of the Lee home. It felt almost familiar to me. Perhaps this has more to do with me than with Ng’s work here, as I grew up in the 80s in a family with three kids, a white mother, and a brown father. Though that’s really about it for the surface similarities, I can’t deny that I felt a kind of kinship with the Lee kids as they navigated their sometimes happy, sometimes harrowing childhoods. There certainly was a similar kind of intensity to my life as a kid. Of course, all of this is no kind of comment at all about Ng’s novel; I’m just sharing a bit of my experience as a particular reader here. But I digress….
The novel begins with the death of the eldest Lee child, Lydia, and I’m not spoiling anything by revealing this. Literally, the first two sentences of the book are: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know that yet.” So, naturally, the stage is set for a standard whodunit, but the novel fast becomes something much larger: a beautiful story of young love in a lost time, an examination of race and class in this particular place and time, and an intimate look at the secrets and faults and fierce love of a unique family.
Structurally, though the novel’s immediate, present timeline stretches across only a matter of months, we are given, through sharp and powerful flashbacks, all of the crucial background on the Lee family, including both Marilyn’s and James’s individual back stories, the story of how they met and married, and various important events in the narrative of their boisterous, growing family. Most formative among these is the summer before Hannah was born, when Marilyn left and almost didn’t come back, a summer that would come to have various repercussions for different members of the family.
Apart from the obvious tragedy, one that would stretch any family to its utmost, there are smaller crises that punctuate the lives of the Lees, as well as a fairly consistent struggle for the children to get what they perceive to be the right kind of attention from their parents. There’s a lot of pressure the kids feel: “All their lives Nath had understood, better than anyone, the lexicon of their family, the things they could never truly explain to outsiders: that a book or a dress meant more than something to read or something to wear; that attention came with expectations that—like snow—drifted and settled and crushed you with their weight” (263).
Another theme that is touched upon is the way in which one event can be remembered or understood by different people in entirely different ways. There’s a crucial scene in the novel where Nath pushes Lydia into a lake near their home, and then pulls her out. Ng writes: “It was too big to talk about, what had happened. It was like a landscape they could not see all at once; it was like the sky at night, which turned and turned so they couldn’t find its edges. It would always feel too big. He pushed her in. And then he pulled her out. All her life, Lydia would remember one thing. All his life, Nath would remember another” (155).
A particularly powerful aspect of Ng’s storytelling that merits mention is the masterful way she navigates the fraught emotional terrain of the children. There are myriad moments where there are all these tiny little events, gestures, and silences that are just bloated with significance to Lydia or Hannah or Nath, which the others, or Marilyn or James, simply fail to notice or acknowledge. It’s poignant, beautiful writing.
The novel has no clear protagonist. Rather, the perspective bounces around between all five members of the family, and I think that this is a big part of what makes this novel so powerful. One can easily imagine a version that centers on James’s perspective, or Nath’s, or even Hannah’s for that matter, but any of these would be entirely different beasts from what Ng has given us here. The fact that she did it the way she did it invites us, I feel, more cinematically into the affairs of the Lee family, and gives us an almost overwhelming, at times frustrating, bird’s-eye-view of the interwoven secrets, missed chances and miscommunications that persist there.
And this all brings me to Ng’s perfect titling of the novel. Everything I Never Told You. I remember it catching my eye at the bookstore about a year ago. There’s poetry to the title, even without having any idea what it means or to what it refers. But by the time I reached the end of the novel, I found myself marveling at its title. Ng has written a heavy, sad, beautiful book that manages to feel fairly light at times, and if it’s about anything, it’s all about the power of communication, and the perhaps deeper, more dangerous power of its lack, the peril always lurking in everything untold, in what’s never said, in all the resounding silence.
And, finally, before I sign off, here are a few insider details, thanks to the good folks over at the Books and Authors podcast. Apparently, Ng gave birth to her first child in the middle of the process of her writing Everything I Never Told You. Ng explained that, early on, she had constructed a characterization of the family that leaned a little toward the children’s side in their tug-of-war with their parents, but that, after becoming a parent herself, this fact naturally altered her worldview a bit and changed the tenor of the novel. Also, it wasn’t until her fourth and final draft of the novel that she ultimately decided to let the readers know, from the very beginning, that Lydia was dead. Earlier drafts had the readers suffering through the not-knowing in the early chapters, right along with the Lee family, who knew she was missing and were still hoping, fearing, but hoping.
Final analysis: read it. It’s terribly sad, but there’s plenty of warmth there also. It does turn out to be a kind of whodunit, and your questions will be answered, but by the time they are, you’ll be so wrapped up in the larger magic being woven that you’ll hardly even care.