Published by Penguin on 6/26/2014
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Lydia Lee is the cherished middle child of Marilyn and James Lee, the heads of the only Chinese-American family in their small 1970’s Ohio town. Fractured by the turns their own lives took, Marilyn and James set out to see that their daughter has all the opportunities they missed. But when Lydia is found dead in a nearby lake, the family is forced to come to grips with both the secrets they have buried and the signs they have ignored.
The act of unpacking family secrets is common in contemporary fiction, yet so rarely done in a way that allows for complete character development. A father may come to blows with his son or a couple looks back on their marriage, but readers often miss out on the full dynamics that make up a family from its conception. In Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng starts with the moment that threatens to tear the Lee’s apart before taking readers through the full journey that got them there.
The racism and loneliness James deals with as a child causes him to push his own children to be outgoing and popular. A younger Marilyn gives up her medical career for her family, which she refuses to see happen to Lydia. Ng charts this delicate dance between members of the family backward and forward in time and in varying perspectives with a fluidity most writers only dream of.
“It struck her then, as if someone had said it aloud: her mother was dead, and the only thing worth remembering about her, in the end, was that she had cooked. Marilyn thought uneasily of her own life, of hours spent making breakfasts, serving dinners, packing lunches into neat paper bags. How was it possible to spend so many hours spreading peanut butter across bread?”
Rather than genuine interactions or conversations, misguided assumptions form the structure of the Lee family. Lydia’s death forces them to talk to one another, to realize the mistakes they’ve made and express real emotions for the first time. In the end, Celeste Ng’s fully realized characters, effortless writing and compelling story make Everything I Never Told You one of the best debuts of 2014.