“Lydia is dead.”, these three words mark the beginning of Lydia’s journey which we’re about to embark upon. These three words make you think it cannot possibly get worse. Right until it gets worse. A lot worse.
I can relate to this book on so many levels: First and foremost, I’m a father. I’m not prone to nightmares but there’s one that has haunted me countless times since my first child was born – losing a child. Fortunately, the nightmare didn’t become reality and I hope it stays that way.
This is what this book is (partly) about, though: Losing a child. The reasons, the family, the friends (or lack of); everything is believable and feels shockingly truthful. Painfully so, even.
Secondly, as the husband of a woman who made being independent a prerequisite for her moving in with me. A woman who spent the next 20 years lovingly caring for our children, as wise as Solomon, as strong as Hercules, as clever as Gandalf. A woman who then decided – quite unlike Marilyn – there was even more she wanted to do and moved on to get an apprenticeship in a field she loves and where she can apply her skills and learn new ones. She will have finished this apprenticeship before our own children finish theirs.
As we know, Lydia, 16, is dead. She was the daughter of Marilyn and James Lee and had two siblings – her older brother Nathan (“Nath”) and Hannah, her younger sister. “Everything I Never Told you” explores their pasts, their present and, in tiny glimpses, their futures. At the beginning, we find ourselves in 1977 but we’re going to take a ride through the decades that will likely forever be “before Lydia” to the family right to the point where past and present tragically converge. Unobtrusively and narrated with empathy and understanding, it tries to answer the one question every parent would ask: Why?
James is the son of Chinese immigrants. Born in the USA, he is American as he never ceases to tell himself. He knows he looks different compared to his caucasian compatriots and then as, unfortunately, today, this does matter. Thus, James always wants to blend in, tries not to stand out but to do what he feels he has to do. Like being the sole provider for his family and, without wanting to, destroying his wife’s dreams. He never quite manages to overcome his inhibitions due to him being different, though, and he projects his own wishes on his children.
Because Marilyn wanted to be a doctor. She excelled in her classes, she studied hard in pursuit of her life’s dream. All the while harassed by her own mother to instead meet a “nice Harvard man”, marry him and be a good wife and mother. Life happened, though, and instead of a doctor Marilyn became James’ wife and later on she came to the false conclusion “It was a sign, Marilyn decided. For her it was too late.”
Years later, she tries to start anew but fails to achieve her goals once more. She, too, just like James, reacts by putting pressure on her daughter Lydia to achieve Marilyn’s dreams. Lydia doesn’t have a childhood but a series of learning events, “extra credit assignments”, competitions. She doesn’t get to be bad at something or she’s met with even more “incentives” to work harder. Feeling deeply indebted to her mother, Lydia complies. She doesn’t quite know why because she doesn’t really want to do all this.
Nathan on the other hand knows exactly what he wants:
“That fall, when the guidance counselor had asked Nath about his career plans, he had whispered, as if telling her a dirty secret. “Space,” he’d said. “Outer space.” Mrs. Hendrich had clicked her pen twice, in-out, and he thought she was going to laugh. […] Instead Mrs. Hendrich told him there were two routes: become a pilot or become a scientist.”
Nathan wants to go to space and – similarly to his father – he does what he has to do. He tirelessly works towards his goal all the while understanding the tearing his parents do to Lydia:
“Do what everyone else is doing. That’s all you ever said to Lydia. Make friends. Fit in.”, Marilyn tells James and goes on to state that she “didn’t want her to be just like everyone else.” The rims of her eyes ignite. “I wanted her to be exceptional.””.
Nathan is Lydia’s cornerstone and anchor; the one person who truly understands her and who tries to alleviate her situation. When he, too, seemingly deserts her, Lydia feels put on a path that can only lead to one conclusion…
And, yet, whereas we, the readers, know what is to come from those first three words, Lydia herself finds a way to deal with all the pushing and pulling in opposite directions by her parents:
“If she fails physics, if she never becomes a doctor, it will be all right. She will tell her mother that. And she will tell her mother, too: it’s not too late. For anything. She will give her father back his necklace and his book. She will stop holding the silent phone to her ear; she will stop pretending to be someone she is not.”
Last but not least there’s Hannah, the youngest daughter and the one mostly overlooked by her parents. Even though she may not be able to express her fears and thoughts, she’s often spot-on with her observations and is very sensitive to the mood in her family. Whenever she gets any attention from her parents, she grows, only to wilt soon after in Lydia’s shadow.
Ultimately, “Everything I Never Told You” is about what all characters never told each other. It is about open and latent xenophobia in our society. It is about parents trying to model their children according to their, the parents, wishes instead of the children’s. Celeste Ng spins all this elegantly and seemingly effortlessly into a force of a nature of a novel that blew me away, reduced me to rubble and helped rebuild myself. Ng’s writing is beautiful and evocative:
“[Her hair] darkened from golden-wheat to amber. It kinked and curled like a fiddlehead fern. It amazed him that he could have such an effect on anyone. As she dozed in his arms, her hair slowly relaxed, and when she woke, it had stretched back to its usual waves.”
If it hadn’t been for the ending as it is, this book would already have been a solid four-star read. With the terrible and crushing conclusion that still allows for hope and redemption, though, “Everything I Never Told You” becomes an instant classic that everyone but especially parents should read – right after telling their children the one simple truth that can literally and metaphorically save lives: