Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Published by Penguin Press
Publication date: June 26th 2014
Genres: Debut, Fiction, Literary, Mystery
Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You is the story of the Lee family. They live in Ohio where the father James is a professor and wife Marilyn stays at home and raises Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah. This is the Rockwell painting version but within those broad strokes there is the kernel, the seed that determines how this story will grow. The source is the very love that created the family. James and Marilyn marry in 1958 despite knowing that at the time few would understand or even condone the marriage between a white woman and a Chinese man. James has suffered from prejudice since the time he was a small child but has hardened himself to ignoring it and hopes life will be different for his children.
Prior to her marriage Marilyn was determined to become a doctor and avoid her mother’s life—making a living as a home economics teacher and believing the only reason a girl should go to college is to meet a husband. Marilyn dreams of so much more until she meets James. Two children follow and, in Marilyn’s mind, she ends up right where her mother did. After eight years she decides this life is not for her so leaves her young children behind and goes back to college to finish her last semester. After only two months she realizes she is pregnant, her dream is dead, and she can do nothing but return home. This decision colors all of her actions from this point until 1977, when the novel begins.
Marilyn’s disappearance and return precipitates private promises on the part of the young Lydia and Marilyn herself. For Lydia it is her prayer that if her mother will just come home, she will be the best little girl possible, she will do whatever her mother wants, and she will never complain. Marilyn vows to herself that she will ensure her daughter believes she can be anything that she wants to be. She will encourage and nurture her to reach the goals that Marilyn herself could not. This creates a dynamic that cannot be sustained in that Lydia becomes the sole focus of her parents’ attention. Her father sculpts her as the popular girl at school and her mother spends all of her time molding her for medical school.
She had staggered so readily, fell so eagerly, that she and Nath both knew: that she felt it, too, this pull she now exerted, and didn’t want it. That the weight of everything tilting toward her was too much.
Nathan is a highly intelligent boy whose resemblance to his father does not bring them together but seems to push them apart. When he is six and teased for being Chinese, James does not step in and help his son creating a distance between them that never lessens.
…James would think back to this day in the swimming pool, the first disappointment in his son, this first and most painful puncture in his fatherly dreams.
And then there is Hannah, the forgotten girl, the cause of her mother’s return to the family; a child so inconsequential that we hardly know her age, only that she is the silent and watchful one, who in an effort to be close to these people who pay her no attention steals small objects from them to feel a part of their lives.
Everything I Never Told You is steeped in a terrible sadness—not of the dramatic kind but the kind that is so pervasive and deep there is no reaching the bottom. Each family members’ perceptions—things that went unsaid, their own private grief, emotions, failures, desires, all lead to what is an almost foregone conclusion. James and Marilyn, locked into their own pasts and pain, can only see the differences, their separateness from everyone around them, and yet, in the smallest, most essential ways their children are mirror images of everything that is right and special about them, the things they have lost or let go. Celeste Ng writes every sentence with a clarity that seems simple and yet is heartbreakingly profound. For all the gentleness she employs in untangling this story’s knots, by the final third of the novel there is no way to smooth things out and only breaking the threads releases the truth and gives this quiet, isolated family a chance to heal.