Set in 1970s rural Ohio, in “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng, the Lee family faces tragedy when they discover their favorite daughter, Lydia, dead in a nearby lake. As a half-white, half-Chinese family and the only Asians in their small town, they endure the isolated grief and unresolved mystery of Lydia’s death: was it murder or suicide? “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng, author of “Little Fires Everywhere,” reveals the delicate family dynamics behind the Lee family, which Lydia’s death accentuates, and the nuances in their relationships: mother and daughter, father and son, sibling and sibling and husband and wife.
The Lee family appears as a nuclear, American family, composed of James Lee and his Caucasian wife Marilyn, with their high school senior Nath, sophomore Lydia and fifth-grader Hannah. James is a professor at Middlewood College in Ohio, focusing his research on cowboys. As a first-generation Chinese American, his interest in American society is ironic considering the social marginalization he has faced throughout his life. This social marginalization haunts James and influences how he acts towards the rest of his family. Marilyn had been his student when they fell in love, and once she became pregnant with Nath, she had to put a halt on her dream to become a doctor. Marilyn’s mother in Virginia was a home economics teacher, encouraging Marilyn to settle down with a husband and embrace her role as a dutiful housewife instead of trying to be a doctor. Although her mother greatly disapproved of her marriage to a Chinese man, Marilyn did not waver in her choice, even though she did reconsider her decision to not become a doctor.
Marilyn and James then had Lydia, who they both favored significantly. Despite Nath’s academic success, Marilyn and James invested more energy and love into Lydia—James wanted her to gain the popularity he always lacked (after being denied a job at his alma mater, Harvard, due to this), and Marilyn wanted her to pursue the career she could not. With this constant pressure to disavow her interests, Lydia rebels by going out with the archetypal boy next door, Jack Wolff. As Nath always had a close relationship with Lydia, he feels protective over her when it comes to Jack. In contrast, due to his rocky relationship with his father, Nath is eager to leave for Harvard as his family has already moved on to the next child. Hannah, the youngest, feels a similar type of neglect, except with the added facet that she feels already forgotten despite just being born.
Lydia’s sudden death further exacerbates the overarching strain in the family. Every member of the family feels some sort of guilt or regret as they reflect on and reevaluate their memories of her. The premise of the novel begins questioning how Lydia dies, but transforms into a much bigger investigation into family, ambition and sacrifice.
The novel is also highly personal to Celeste Ng. In an interracial marriage herself, she based James’ and Marilyn’s relationship on first-hand experience. Although Ng considers her marriage to be more stable than James’ and Marilyn’s, she still relates to their struggles. In an interview with Nicole Chuang from The Toast, she says, “[There] are moments of friction where I see how my husband’s background and my background made us into people with very different outlooks, and it was all too easy to imagine how those differences could get magnified into huge rifts that could destroy a relationship.”
Ng’s Chinese ethnicity clearly plays a role in the novel as well, as we follow themes of racism, isolation and identity. Since she grew up in Cleveland, the novel mirrors her own life. She says in the same interview: “Both my parents are ethnically Chinese, but growing up in an area with very few Asians, I have always felt somewhat distanced from that Chinese heritage… I have enough of a sense of my Chineseness that I didn’t feel totally at home in suburban America, either. I don’t pretend that’s the same as being interracial, but I relate to feeling somewhere in between two different cultures, and wanted to explore that.”
“Everything I Never Told You” is seamless and notable even in its writing style—flashbacks appear without warning and changes between the characters’ perspectives are common, yet these sudden shifts do not confuse the reader. At 292 pages, you can easily read it in one sitting as you effortlessly get invested in the story and its plot twists. Plus, it is really satisfying when you are reading and you truly understand what the title means.