In a world that’s full of talking, the things that go unsaid are often the most significant. They may be deeply-held feelings that are mutually understood and don’t need to be spoken. Or they may be raw emotions that are misinterpreted because they are never fully explained. In her debut novel Everything I Never Told You, author Celeste Ng delivers a devastating portrait of a family trapped in a prison of their own making, where nothing is as it seems and no one is able to break the silence.
The story opens on a spring day in 1977, when 16-year-old Lydia Lee is found dead, drowned in a lake near her home in northwest Ohio. Smart, pretty and the undisputed favorite of her parents, Lydia seemed to have everything going for her, and her death is as inexplicable as it is tragic. But as her family searches for answers, long-held secrets bubble up to the surface, bringing disturbing truths into the open.
Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, never realized her dream of becoming a doctor and has instead energetically groomed her daughter to achieve that ambition. Her father, James, wants his children to be well-liked and fit in the way he never could as the shy son of Chinese immigrants. When he recognizes himself in Lydia’s studious older brother Nathan, his disappointment forever clouds their relationship.
Marilyn and James’ status as an interracial couple sets the family apart from the local community, hindering neighborly interaction and support. Neither parent has much attention left over for younger sister Hannah. She passes through the house almost unseen and provides some of the most telling observations in the book.
How had it come to this? “Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.” Ng explains early in the book. Marilyn and James’ perception of their children is colored by their own experiences. Marilyn can’t separate her dreams from those of her daughter. James’ relationship with his son is defined by his own insecurities. Neither parent is capable of really knowing their children.
Paloma Josse, the young co-narrator of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog explains it perfectly: “We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors…As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone.”
As the investigation into Lydia’s death continues, we see just how dangerous these preoccupations can be. I finished Everything I Never Told You feeling shaken to the core, but not without a slim ray of hope for the Lee family. When we’re finally able to shift our attention away from the mirror and toward those around us, we can truly know, understand and love one another.