Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This novel begins with two chilling sentences. "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet."  In her debut work, Ng creates a mystery, thriller and a very insightful look at complex familial relationships. Everything I Never Told You held a place on the NY Times best seller list as well as being named's book of 2014. The Gables Book Club chose it as the selection for May 2015. 

As do so many books today, Ng begins her book in media res. It is 1977 in a small town in Ohio not far from Cleveland when the reader and her family learns of Lydia Lee's death. From there the back story is given of her parents, Marilyn and James Lee. Marilyn is from Virginia, a medical school drop out after she met James who was a Harvard teaching assistant in the PhD program. He was the son of Chinese immigrants and was not, according to her mother, a desirable catch for Marilyn. Nath is a senior in high school who has his heart set on Harvard, Lydia is 3 years younger and Hannah is the baby in the family. Marilyn seems to be living vicariously through Lydia as she pushes her daughter to be perfect, especially in her science courses. James, however, pushes her in another way - to be popular and have friends. Nath has always been his sister's protector and rock and as his departure to college looms imminent, Lydia finds it hard to imagine what her life would be like without him, the only other Oriental in her school. Hannah is the youngest and often seems the forgotten child. The other major player in the novel is Jack, a ruffian and bully. He tries to teach Lydia to drive, but one suspects he may have other plans for the relationship and he becomes a key suspect if Lydia was murdered.

As the novel unfolds, the relationships among and between family members revealed. One learns that after her mother's death, Marilyn leaves her family to return to school, to follow that dream that she had to give up. She doesn't tell her family and leaves them to their own devices, living on peanut butter sandwiches. Lydia has much that she does not tell as well. After her death, her mother looks for the diaries that she had given Lydia year after year, hoping to gain some insight into what has happened to her. And so it plays out. Each and every one of the Lee family has a his or her own secrets that are not told.

This is a powerful novel that accentuates all those relationships that are played out in a familial/work/school setting. One feels an incredible amount of empathy for them all. One concept that was surprising to me was the treatment of ethnicity in the late 60s and 70s. The prejudice against Asians took me by surprise. I guess that is my naiveté, but it is a major part of this novel. A wonderful read and thought provoking book.

Celeste Ng is from Pittsburgh and I look forward to her lecture on 1 June. It will be interesting to hear her commentary on the book.

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