Everything I Never Told You
The Penguin Press
Release Date: June 26, 2014
It absolutely slays me when debut novels are this good.
Everything I Never Told You is the story of a family dealing with a tragic loss. It’s 1977 in Middlewood, Ohio, and Lydia Lee – the bright, outwardly happy, 16 year old eldest daughter of the Lee family – is late for breakfast. Her father, James Lee, is already on his way in to work, where he teaches history at a small local university. Her older brother Nathan and younger sister Hannah linger at the breakfast table waiting for her, until they miss the school bus and mother Marilyn gives Nath her car keys so he can drop Hannah off on his way to his high school, from which he is weeks away from graduating. Marilyn tries not to worry, but Lydia isn’t in her room – she hasn’t been all night from the looks of her bed – and that’s not like Lydia at all. With the other children gone, she picks up the phone and starts making calls.
We know Lydia is dead; that much is made clear right away. The who, what, where and how of her death is starkly evident. It’s the why that lingers throughout the book, and it’s the why that lays bare the cracks in the foundation of the Lee family. We watch as the slow disintegration of the family begins, and our heart breaks when we realize how far back those cracks started.
The Lees are not a dysfunctional family, even in the most thin use of the term. There is no illegal drug use, no rampant alcoholism, no intentional abuse (physical or emotional), no heated rebellion, no casual sexual dalliances. James and Marilyn love each other, and they love their kids; the kids, in return, are healthy, intelligent and seem to all outward appearances well adjusted.
In fact, the Lee family is a pretty typical Midwestern, middle class family from the 1970s, except for one thing: James Lee is the descendant from Chinese immigrants. Although he was born in California and has never been outside the United States, he still looks “Oriental” in a time and place where this sets him apart. Nath and Lydia take after their father; little Hannah is more like her mother, who is blond with white skin, the scion of an established Virginia/European heritage. The family does have to contend with prejudice and stereotyping, some overt, but mostly from people who are ignorant rather than downright mean. Still, the sense of being “different” touches each one of the Lees; the sense of being an outsider weighs heavily on Lydia, especially.
Yet Everything I Never Told You is not a crusading novel about the unfairness of prejudice nor a YA novel about a teenage girl yearning to fit in with her peers. It goes far deeper than that, and in doing so, it is achingly genuine. The Lee’s story is one that could be – was – played out in houses all over the country, and continues to be played out, perhaps not in consequences but in how members of any given family – husbands and wives, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters – struggle to understand and relate to each other.
For the Lees, it is not just the sense of being on the outside, of being undesirable, although that is an undercurrent to everything else that swirls around them. It’s also about realizing your value, not just to others but also to yourself, and the high price of expectations and the desire to please. It’s the burden of holding true to promises made before the costs of those promises were understood. It’s about loyalty, even in the face of resentment. It’s about the ways we manipulate others, and ourselves, even with the best of intentions, and it’s about forgiveness. Especially about forgiveness.
Yet what I found most compelling in Everything I Never Told You is how author Celeste Ng went one step further, and wrote about that incredibly intimate aspect of a family that can be its greatest strength and its steepest downfall – what each member gives up for the sake of what they perceive as the greater good. What any member may sacrifice or deny themselves in order to be what is expected, or be what others want them to be, or even, to be what they want to be for others. What any given member may take upon themselves, how they hold it close and what they choose to share (or not share) about the reasons for those sacrifices, the pressures and the fears and the hopes that arise from them. These things, these very emotional and deeply rooted things, can end up shattering a family, or saving it. Sometimes both.
Our hearts break as we watch the Lee family begins to self-destruct after the discovery of Lydia’s body. All the guilt, anger, disappointment and resentment that had existed in the family become bloated in the aftermath of Lydia’s death, seeping into the fissures that had been patched over or cautiously avoided, forgotten or ignored, and threaten to damage the family and its members beyond repair. We begin to understand how each character – James, Marilyn, Lydia, Nath and even Hannah – are holding back secrets and hidden fears in order to protect the others, and it is that very sacrifice that is causing the most harm. Any one of the characters, in a search for understanding, could be the one who utters, here is “everything I never told you”. The question is whether anyone will utter that key phrase, and even if they do, will it be in time?
All I will say is that the revelation of Lydia’s last moments and the following final pages will shred your heart. I won’t’ say whether it will be because of despair, or hope.
I will also say that . And once you do, sit down and think about how you respond to your own family; how you relate to them, what feelings you’ve held back, what dreams you’ve let go, what hopes you still have, and why. Then ask them about theirs. Maybe it’s time – time to share everything you never told them.