Thanks to the new addition curbside pickup at the Orange County public libraries, my fantasy ever-growing quarantine wishlist of books has been transformed into reality. I was ecstatic throughout the car ride home, all too busy imagining the familiar coarse pages leafing across my fingertips under the dim light of my room once again.
One of my favorite new reads is a mystery/psychological fiction novel by Celeste Ng. “Everything I Never Told You” is her debut novel published in 2014 and was named Amazon’s best book of the same year.
The plot follows a series of snapshots within the Lee family timeline, tracing history all the way back to the parents’ marriage. In a small Ohio town, Lydia Lee, a mixed Chinese American 15-year old girl, is suddenly found dead in the lake. The headlines are flooded with attention from the rare occurrence, although rumors are quick to surface about her heritage being the reason for possible suicide.
Her family, built upon a fragile pedestal of lies and truths not fully explored, completely shatters with Lydia’s death.
Each member turns away, searching for answers amidst their fractured relationships. Nath, her 18-year old, college-bound brother, is desperate to find someone to blame. Hannah is lost, as the youngest Lee sibling who has been quietly observing from underneath tables and behind bookshelves. James and Marilyn drift apart with an unspoken tension hanging between them, the secrets of their past festering like open wounds.
Personally, I’ve always been a sucker for psychological/thriller, where the intense page-turning pieces of the puzzles click together in my brain along with the characters.
However, the haunting beauty of “Everything I Never Told You” does not come solely from its engaging premise. Rather, I found it to be strikingly relevant to aspects of my own life; from the academic pressure Lydia bore silently, to James projecting his childhood desire to fit in on his children. There’s definitely an uncomfortable resemblance that calls out to anyone, as you savor each of Ng’s carefully crafted words.
The novel is set in the 1970s, a time where mixed families are a radical concept. For Marilyn and James, this means disapproving looks from onlookers, even Marilyn’s own mother, who kept repeating “It’s just not right” on their wedding day.
I liked how the author includes James’ background and experience growing up as a Chinese immigrant. The stares, the subtle racist comments ranging from slurs to stereotypes and false assumptions. He never quite fit in; even after working as a teaching assistant at Harvard, all his students would lose respect just from a simple glance at his ink-black hair.
When he first meets Marilyn, he is struck by her beauty and the way she treats him, as if he were completely normal. So he buries his internalized self-hatred for his own Chinese culture and embraces her with the innocent, loving James instead.
They get married, but neither of them discusses the invisible boundary between their sharply contrasting looks. Marilyn herself struggles with her own unhappiness from ultimately succumbing to a maternal role after the birth of her children.
Each little fragment of each family member’s circumstances begins to slowly fall in place with the new bits of information you learn. The real enjoyment of this novel comes from trying to understand the motivations and complex aspects that each character possesses. Their dynamic, albeit strange, come from a place of miscommunications, longing and insecurities.
I just want to sincerely thank Celeste Ng for giving me the pleasure of learning about the history of the Lee family along with the Lees themselves.
If you’re looking for a deep quarantine read to make you think, then this one’s for you. Again, “Everything I Never Told You” can appeal to all audiences because of the sharp contrast between the characters. I personally found myself questioning Lydia’s actions, then sympathizing with her as her story unraveled.
I’m currently reading the hit Hulu original “Little Fires Everywhere” also by Ng, and I’m already heavily invested in this new cast. I highly recommend you give both books a try because even if the story doesn’t appeal to you, it’s guaranteed to make you think. It’s guaranteed to make you ask yourself about the nature of humans, our ambitions and desires, the externalized pressures we face from society and whether or not things are worth it in the end.
You’ll find yourself startled by how well it seems Celeste Ng knows us, despite everything we’ve never told her. A quite fitting connection to the title, if I do say so myself.