Book review: Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You

Celeste Ng’s novel, “Everything I Never Told You,” is a brisk timely tale of racial conflict and filial expectations. Though heavy themes, she has a light and sure-footed touch, a masterful talent for plotting that makes the pages turn. And as in all good stories, the characters drive the story forward.

Set in the ’50s to ’70s, before biracial couples were as prevalent as they are today, the story is a close look at the Lee family. The family doesn’t stay that way for long, as the seams begin to tear apart. The cut that does it is given away immediately to the reader in the opening lines, “Lydia is dead.”

In Ng’s own words, she wanted the momentum of the story not to come from “What has happened?” but “Why did it happen?” She deviates from a typical linear trajectory, and instead borrows the technique from mystery novels, of starting with the dead body, and tracing backwards in whodunit fashion. In doing so, Ng draws in the reader, enlisting their support in working through the motivations. More than a mystery, Ng also makes the revelations of the Lee family real and urgent as the story unfolds.

At the head of the family stands James P. Lee, who was the first Chinese student to attend a private boarding school in the Midwest. His parents worked as the custodian and lunch lady at the school. Nobody expected him to succeed, which fueled his drive to prove all those around him wrong. Yet he still had trouble fitting in. He went on to study American history at Harvard, and he focused on the most iconic symbol of Americana there is, the cowboy.  While teaching his first class, he meets a young American undergraduate named Marilyn. They begin an affair, contrary to the expectations of either set of parents, but their relationship is particularly irksome to Marilyn’s mother. Marilyn’s mother had expected her to fall in love, but Marilyn had come to college expecting to become a doctor.

James and Marilyn have three children: Nath, Lydia and Hannah. In the present-day of the story, during the weeks before Lydia’s death, Nath has just been accepted to Harvard like his father, Lydia is failing her advanced physics class, and Hannah remains neglected in the shadows, as James and Marilyn pour their lifetime of pent-up desires upon Lydia. In telling detail, they each give her books for her birthday — James gives her “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and Marilyn gives her “A Brief History of Medicine” and “Rosalind Franklin and DNA.”

A fictitious news article in the novel reads, “As one of only two Orientals … Lee stood out in the halls. However, few seemed to have known her well.”

The exception to this is a neighbor down the street named Jack. He has a reputation of being a bad boy, being raised by a single mother and bedding a series of girls in his pick-up truck. Nath picks a fight with him at Lydia’s funeral, and Nath later turns to drinking to drown his woe, grasping at ways to fix his hurt.

“Lydia is dead” is just the beginning. It is the unfortunate consequence and cause that sets off an entire family’s search for the cracks in the walls of a domestic life that had been waiting to collapse.

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