“‘Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.’ So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese-American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favourite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfil the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them all into chaos.
A profoundly moving story of secrets and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait about love, lies and race.”
I actually heard about Celeste Ng through her second novel Little Fires Everywhere. I read this late last year and absolutely adored it, so went in search for more by the author. I found that I’d actually already picked up Everything I Never Told You in a charity shop a year ago so had it ready to read.
After the death of Lydia, her family are sent into turmoil trying to figure out what happened – was she murdered? Was it an accident? By processing her death, her mother, Marilyn, father, James, her brother, Nath and sister, Hannah, face their past, their relationships as a family, and with Lydia, and everything that ensues. There are secrets, lies, sadness, grief, resentment and more, all in the historical context of 1960’s and 1970’s America, which obviously was not a particularly tolerant place.
As a general look at this novel, it’s a page-turner mystery in which you’re trying to figure out what happened to Lydia. It’s an interesting way of storytelling to see family theories, public theories and what the police are thinking. I had my own theories about what happened, which were actually proved wrong, and although you have somewhat of an inkling of what happened to Lydia, you probably don’t have a full idea. In terms of mystery, its very well done.
Looking deeper, I think the more poignant part of the novel was the display and exploration of family dynamics. The ways in which Marilyn and James treated their children, and the different ways in which they interacted with them, was a fascinating part of the story. It is clear that Lydia was their favourite, and the repercussions of this had devastating effects of the whole family and how they existed with and around one another. I personally found the general disregard of Hannah to be a particularly heartbreaking aspect to this novel, but again, part of the theme of family. I actually think this family aspect was one of the most memorable parts of the book, and perhaps the most important part compared to the general mystery element.
Relationships outside of the family were also a compelling part of this story, especially James and Marilyn’s. The power dynamic, the expected roles of men and women, and the effects of extramarital affairs makes for an interesting read. The relationship, be it friendship or otherwise, between Lydia and Jack was also of note, of course told in flashbacks to when Lydia was alive. It brings a complex ‘coming of age’ aspect to the story which was explored primarily through Lydia and Nath’s characters, but perhaps to some extent James and Marilyn’s too.
Perhaps more important still was the inclusion of so many social themes; racism, sexism, sexuality and the pressure parents put on their children, all in the context of 1960’s/70’s America which only adds another level to such complex subjects. It gives an interesting perspective on the lives of Chinese-American people at this time which is something I know very little about. I haven’t encountered this in any other books and I found it really interesting to learn about. Also, the inclusion of everyday, and very blatant, sexism, which is something I do know quite a bit more about, was a key part of the novel. The impact of the gender norms of the time are very evident, as is the effect of challenging these.
I have to say, I didn’t particularly warm to many of the characters, only Hannah and Marilyn, however maybe that was point. All of the characters are shown to be flawed; they act selfishly and sometimes with little outward regard for others. However, I think their inner love for each other is explored, and that is what is most important to the story, though this doesn’t help to make them likeable. Again, perhaps this is the point. Even Lydia was hard to like for me, but I think with this, you have to draw upon the themes of racism, sexism and parental pressure within this book that undeniably shape the characters and help you to understand their behaviour.
Whilst I have to admit that I preferred Little Fires Everywhere, Everything I Never Told You is well worth the read. Although on the surface this book seems like your classic page-turner mystery, when you look a little deeper it is actually a fascinating novel about relationships, particularly familial, sibling, marital and even extramarital, which also contains a poignant look at racism, sexism and sexuality in the context of 1960’s and 1970’s America.