I feel like any book that starts off telling you that a character is dead is off to a good start. That type of beginning just hooks a reader. Well, it reeled me in at least. I’m actually quite surprised that this was a debut novel – I normally hate debut novels, but this one was really well written, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
“Everything I Never Told You” is a book about family, and the relationships between every member of a family. This novel was specifically about the Lee family – a family with a Chinese father and a Caucasian mother living in small-town Ohio in the mid-70s. Lydia Lee, the middle child, and her parents’ favorite – the one that her parents are sure will fulfill the dreams they never achieved. But then her body is found in the lake and her family is completely destroyed – relationships are examined and everything is just never the same for the remaining Lees. It takes Lydia’s death for the Lee family to realize they may not understand each other after all.
Like I said earlier, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was seriously interesting reading about an interracial couple during an era where interracial couples were uncommon, even outlawed in some cases. (Loving v. Virginia) I loved that the book explored the relationship between every member of the family – husband and wife, father and daughter(s), father and son, mother and daughter(s). I also liked the fact that the narrative had flashbacks and we really got to understand Marilyn & James’ relationship, from when they met, to them getting married, and finally, to having and raising a family – and how all these events have affected their relationship.
I totally felt for all of the members of the Lee family. I felt like I could relate to all of them, but I especially related to Lydia and James. I was totally Lydia growing up – minus the blue eyes and the blonde hair. My parents had put a ton of pressure on me, wanting me to soar and achieve everything they never got to do. I was supposed to be the perfect daughter, who got perfect scores and got into all of the Ivy Leagues. I was supposed to become a doctor, or a lawyer, or an accountant and make a ton of money, so I would never have to worry about money like my middle-class parents. In the end, the pressure completely absorbed me and I ended up imploding – I didn’t want to go to an Ivy League school and I hated math and science. So I can totally understand how Lydia felt under all that pressure. It’s hard being the favorite – you always have to be perfect, and there can really never be an excuse or a reason as to why you couldn’t achieve your parents’ goals. But combine all of that with dealing with the fact that you’re half-Asian in small-town Ohio in the mid-70s? That must have been a nightmare. Poor Lydia.
Lydia was supposed to be everything her parents weren’t – she was supposed to be this amazing female doctor (something almost unheard of in that time period) like her mother was supposed to be. She was supposed to be liked and popular, like her father always wanted to be. She was the favorite, so even though she hated science, she grinned and bared all of the science courses her mother pushed her into. She pretended to have a lot of friends so her father wouldn’t be disappointed. Never mind that her older brother got into Harvard or that her younger sister is practically ignored – as long as Lydia was the dream child, her parents were essentially blind to everybody else. It’s a hard position to be placed in, with a lot of pressure from all sides and no support. I felt bad that Lydia felt that she couldn’t talk to her parents about this, or even her siblings since they were jealous she got all the attention. Lydia represented all of the secrets hidden in relationships – secrets teenage daughters don’t tell their mothers, and secrets ashamed and embarrassed husbands kept from their wives.
While society as a whole has progressed a lot in terms of civil rights and racial equality, there will always be ignorant people who couldn’t care less about any of that. I mean, the 2016 election proves this fact. Growing up in New York City, I didn’t feel like I faced a ton of racism. Sure, there were the ignorant people who would try to speak to me in made-up Chinese, assuming that because I’m Chinese, I’d understand them – but those people were few and far in between. It wasn’t until I left for college that I realized how amazing and yet sheltered growing up in the city could be. My first week in college, someone asked why my English was so good and where I was from since they had never met an Asian person who could speak English without an accent. I wasn’t sure if I was offended or if I pitied the person who asked me that. But this is the type of situation that James Lee, the patriarch of the Lee family, would often be in.
James Lee’s father had to immigrate to America under a false name, since at the time, America wasn’t letting in any more non-Americans. James Lee stopped speaking Chinese because he wanted to perfect his English, in hopes that he would make a friend who wouldn’t look at him weirdly or make offensive racial eye gestures. James Lee’s students walked out of his class because he was the Chinese graduate student talking about American cowboys – something they felt was just “not right.” James Lee’s mother-in-law said that his marriage was just “not right.” So of course, James never wanted his precious daughter, the one who inherited her mother’s blonde hair and blue eyes, to ever experience any of these problems. This, of course, created new problems – new pressure on his daughter to be everything he never was. James thought that Lydia wouldn’t have any problems making friends because she looked like her mother. He didn’t realize that the rest of the town would still see her as “Oriental.
There are many more relationships between family members explored in the book – these are just the ones I related to most. So while “Everything I Never Told You” is part mystery – because you do eventually find out why Lydia’s body was found in the middle of the lake – it’s more about relationships and how they shape your character. It’s a very poignant read – and I loved every single moment.
TO BUY OR NOT TO BUY: BUY BUY BUY IT. I highly recommend it.
EXTRAS: Celeste Ng’s sophomore novel, “Little Fires Everywhere” is supposed to come out this Fall. Guess who’s already started a countdown.