Rarely does a book leave me breathless, but “Everything I Never Told You” (2014) did so throughout. Celeste Ng (pronounced –ING) didn’t wow me with fast-paced drama or snappy writing, but rather with a gentle narration of the story of a family suffering the loss of their teenage daughter and sister. Ng doesn’t want to weigh readers down with the grief. Instead she subtly but brilliantly allows us to discover the points in the complicated familial web that caught the sensitive 16-year-old Lydia. She also gives us a series of small mysteries to follow within the greater puzzle of Lydia’s death.
I was hooked in with Ng’s opening words: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” “They” are Lydia’s family: Marilyn, the mother who is preparing breakfast; James, her husband who is driving to the college where he teaches; Nath, their son whose mind is only on starting Harvard in fall; and Hannah, the youngest, who is the only one to mention that Lydia is late coming to breakfast.
From there on the story pulses with emotional energy—unfulfilled dreams, yearnings, shame. James is a Chinese-American who unrelentingly seeks acceptance for himself and his children. Marilyn is a blue-eyed blonde who hoped to be a doctor but resentfully settled for homemaking and forced her plans onto her daughter. Nath, the only son, readies himself for a final escape from his parents. Hannah accepts her place in the home as the overlooked extra. And Lydia, who “absorbed her parents’ dreams” and was the center of their universe, is gone.
Ng wants to paint a larger picture for us, beyond the northwestern Ohio town in the late ‘70s, where this mixed-race family lives. We learn that Marilyn and James married just days before the black and white Virginia couple—with the appropriate name, Loving—married and were shortly arrested for that sin. James’ father was a “paper son,” emigrating to San Francisco from China by pretending to be the son of a neighbor as did so many new citizens. When Lydia is first declared missing, Marilyn thinks quickly that luckily they don’t live in New York where the terrifying “Son of Sam” is murdering young women.
“Everything I Never Told You” is a book that demands a discussion, so it’s a perfect book club choice. Connecting all the dots within the story of the Lee family that led to Lydia’s death could fill an evening. It’s no wonder that Amazon named it #1 Book of 2014.