Lydia is the favourite daughter of Marilyn and James Lee, a mixed race couple raising their three children in 1970’s Ohio. Studious, beautiful, and obedient, her parents see in her everything they were unable to achieve.
But Lydia is dead now. And the family cannot understand what happened. At first she was just missing but when her body is found at the bottom of the local lake, the family dissolves into chaos. As they deal with the fallout from her death, they must confront the long-kept secrets and hidden emotions that threaten to tear the family apart for good.
Everything I Never Told You is the debut novel from Celeste Ng. It is a story of family and identity, of finding yourself and living up to expectations. Haunting and moving, it is an incredible and poignant novel.
When I first picked up this book, I thought that it was a mystery - Lydia is dead, what happened and who killed her? But it is actually much less about her death and more about the drama surrounding her family. It is the story of a family that was, without them really knowing it, struggling to hold it together before Lydia’s disappearance. And it is the story of how that family deals with the aftermath as they confront what they long kept hidden.
In what feels like a very short book there is so much for readers to sink into. The Lee family is biracial - James is first generation Chinese American and Marilyn is White. Their relationship was accepted by few, and race and belonging is a thread throughout the whole book. In addition to this, acceptance is a theme that each character has to deal with. James was always an outsider, different from everyone else around him and his biggest wish for Lydia was that she would be accepted and popular in ways that he wasn’t. Marilyn gave up her dream of being a doctor, the only female in her class, to care for her family and always struggled with accepting the new life she chose. The eldest and youngest children, Nath and Hannah, have always had to deal with the pressure from their parents but also dealing with the knowledge that Lydia is the favourite of their parents.
I absolutely loved the way this story unfolds. It begins with the disappearance of Lydia and then goes back and unfolds the entire story. Going back and forth between past and present, we understand the motivations of the characters. Many people will recognize the trait that parents have, the wanting of more for their children than they had. How those parents handle that has a profound effect on the children.
This is a quiet little book that packs a big punch. When you consider that this is a debut novel, it is even more stunning. I haven’t been hit this hard emotionally by a book in a long time. A must-read.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of Penguin Random House of Canada. The opinions expressed above are my own.