In Ohio during the 1970s, a family is starting off another typical day, getting ready for work and school. Soon a tragedy rips through the town leaving the family heartbroken and hungry for answers: the death of 16-year-old Lydia Lee, the favorite child of Chinese American James Lee and blonde-haired blue-eyed Marilyn Lee.
It sounds like a familiar story: a local girl is murdered and the local troublemaker, who is one of the last ones to see her, has his lips sealed. However, Celeste Ng’s “Everything I Never Told You” takes these common plot devices and weaves them together in a heart-wrenching story about family, love, ambition, and loss.
Ng opens the story with the lines: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.”
From the way Ng sets up the novel, the reader is aware of Lydia’s death right from the beginning, the very first words– in actuality, a fact that the family does not realize until a little later. This successfully sets up a deeply moving story that lets the readers feel empathy for the Lydia’s family members. Additionally, the opening lines work effectively to grab the reader’s attention as it sets the story up as a mystery and leaves them curious to find out more about Lydia’s death.
Instead, the readers get to watch as the police officers interrogate the family members, all of whom have their own theories as to why Lydia can’t be found but none of whom are willing to voice their opinions. The real mystery is who Lydia is and in reality, why a family is struggling under their seemingly perfect façade.
Truly, Lydia’s death is only a part of the story; the bigger, more prevalent elements are family, ambition, and –to a certain degree– race. The setting of Ng’s story works wonderfully to enhance these elements. The readers clearly see how being a mixed race family affects the family greatly in that time period.
An example of this is when Marilyn’s mother, a home economics teacher from Virginia, asks her daughter, if she’s sure “that he doesn’t just want a green card?” after meeting James for the first time. James is greatly affected by this as he always feels like an outsider looking in although he strives to be the hallmark of the ordinary American.
Additionally, the readers are able to see the dynamics of each family member’s relationship with one another which prove to be the focal point of the story. Lydia’s siblings, older brother Nath and younger sister Hannah harbor their own regrets and secrets about Lydia’s disappearance.
One of the best things of the novel is that by revealing Lydia’s death from the starting point, Ng introduces Lydia as a blank canvas to the readers. Ng projects her to readers wholly through her family’s individual opinions and view of her character which makes the real mystery of the story to reconstruct Lydia from the bias and catching a glimpse of who she was when she was alive, especially through her siblings’ more perspective insights.
Her brother Nath is especially close to her; her parents tell the police that she was popular and well liked when they are reporting her disappearance but Nath reveals, “how in the cafeteria she sits silent while the others chatter… copying her homework, she quietly slides her notebook back into her bookbag… Once, he had stayed on the phone line after Lydia picked up and heard not gossip, but his sister’s voice duly rattling off assignments—read Act I of Othello, do the odd-numbered problems in Section 5—then quiet after the hang-up click.”
Additionally, the most fundamental relationship in the novel is the one that Lydia shares with her mother. Lydia’s mother who had wanted to go to medical school all her life, and then didn’t, pinned all her hopes on Lydia to be successful where she was not. These high expectations, her parent’s hopes and ambitions are what slowly kill Lydia as “All her life she had heard her mother’s heart drumming one beat: doctor, doctor, doctor… She wanted this so much, Lydia knew, that she no longer needed to say it.”
Ng’s novel emerges as a portrait of a family struggling to find their place in society and a girl who suffered trying to be the sacrificial lamb to end the struggle. With words woven through insightful observations and interpretations, Ng captivates the readers with a literary goldmine; “Everything I Never Told You” is a story of burden, a story of how the secrets that tied a family together ended up tearing them apart. Ng paints a meaningful story ripe with understanding and empathy in her debut novel which will win the hearts of readers everywhere.