Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: a review
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Lydia is dead.
But that's not the end or the beginning. It's simply the point from which Celeste Ng begins the dive into the Lee family in her debut novel Everything I Never Told You. Lydia's disappearance and death mark a point by which Ng takes the reader back in time, to a point where each character learns to assimilate and manage their expectations in their own way.
The flashbacks begin with James and Marilyn Lee. From their chance meeting to their subsequent relationship and marriage. When Marilyn first meets her young professor (James), she can't help but feel drawn to him. The most obvious difference is physical: he is Asian and his demeanor is much unlike any of the men she has ever met. He isn't the cocky Harvard man her mother hopes for her to find, and that makes him all the more desirable. Marilyn is a minority in her pre-med courses. She is sometimes the only woman in the lab and her passions and goals often prompt an eyebrow raise from her male counterparts. Remember, this is the 1960s and female doctors are far and few between.
Meanwhile, James, the son of Chinese immigrants, has felt afloat and alone almost his entire life.
From attending a private school as the only Asian child where his mother worked as a janitor to now having grown into a man without either of his parents, grasping at the dwindling hope of a tenure-track position at an Ivy League school. And, as the reader learns, that tenure-track position never comes and the newlywed couple settle into a life in their small Ohio town. The couples' goals seem to diminish or are pushed to the back of their minds in order to appease their mate and eventually raise their children. James wants to be the All-American husband and dad and refuses to have Marilyn work, when all she wants is to work. But he doesn't know her true desires. The couple are constantly fighting their instincts and their desires. But at what cost? They do not communicate and allow room for secrets and resentments to bloom. They acquiesce to the perceived needs or desires of the other without ever voicing their truths.
As biracial children growing up in small-town Ohio in the late 1970s, the Lee children are navigating an all-white world and attempting to find a place for themselves.
Nath is the first born, but he lives in his younger sister's shadow. Lydia receives all the shine of their mother's light. Following a period of time in which Marilyn leaves the family, Lydia becomes her mother's way of living her dreams. Marilyn makes a promise to herself that she will not mold Lydia into the kind of woman Marilyn's mother wanted her to be. Instead, she will allow her to explore math and science and encourage her to not fear to excel or perform better than her male counterparts. Lydia, only a child at the time of her mother's disappearance and return, makes a silent promise that she will do everything her mother asks of her in fear of losing her again.
Meanwhile, Nath loses his mom in her concerted effort to push Lydia to be the woman she wanted to be. Nath fights for attention but hardly receives it. His quiet nature and near invisibility at school disappoint his father who wants him to attain the All-American male persona that was not within his reach as a young man.
And Hannah, the youngest and the most forgotten. She navigates this adult world shakily. She sees what others don't want her to see and yearns to be the focus of anyone's attention.
The Lees live inside themselves and voice only parts of what they want.
As I listened to the audiobook, my heart literally ached for them to be able to say what they meant and wanted. To get what they wanted. But the weight of societal pressure and expectations were ingrained so deeply in their DNA that every step of the way, if there wasn't a physical barrier there was a mental one of their own design.
The family is viewed as a peculiarity by everyone around them. This story illuminates the Asian and Asian-American experience in the American Midwest. It brings a lens to the experience of biracial children who are forced to find a way to appeal to their all-white town or school. The societal and racial prejudices are depicted in a variety of ways. James internalizes the racism he experienced as a child and alienates himself from the culture of his parents and pursues a career as a professor of American history, completely immersing himself into the history and culture of the United States, a way of becoming as American as he can possibly be. Lydia is consumed by anxiety and unable to befriend any classmates because she doesn't look like them and they are not inclined to welcome her because of this. She appears to be consumed by her school work but little do they know she is struggling in her physics class and befriends the neighborhood "bad boy." Nath can't seem to live up to his father's expectations of masculinity and is met with little more than shrugs and half-smiles. Hannah nearly has no voice in the story. She embodies the invisibility every member of the Lee family feels.
It all adds up and creates a vacuum in which despair, anxiety, and secrets grow.
There is so much more to the story than I can possibly expand on here. This is not a happy one, folks. But it is real. It is heavy. And, it is a masterpiece. I highly recommend you pick it up and dive in.
Have you read any of Celeste Ng's novels? What did you think? I'll be sharing my review of her latest novel next week. Stay tuned and be sure to share this review with your friends!