All her life she had heard her mother’s heart drumming one beat: doctor, doctor, doctor. She wanted this so much, Lydia knew, that she no longer needed to say it. It was always there. Lydia could not imagine another future, another life. It was like trying to imagine a world where the sun went around the moon, or where there was no such thing as air.
Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You starts like a thriller: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” It is structured like a thriller too, or at least like a mystery, with Lydia’s death the puzzle at its center and the novel moving bit by bit through the revelations that will ultimately explain it. I don’t say “solve it,” though, because Lydia’s death ends up feeling like a problem with no solution — or, more accurately, her life feels that way, so that by the time you arrive again at her death, you are weighed down, as Lydia is, by everything that led to it. The set-up is a feint, a bit of misdirection, that leads us to think knowing why and how Lydia died will matter.
It does matter, of course, intensely. It just doesn’t matter in the way that solving a crime matters to a whodunit, because Everything I Never Told You is actually a very different kind of book. It is a book about family above all, and particularly about the perverse and painful ways people who love each other can twist, bend, and even break their relationships with each other. It is also, and inextricably, a book about belonging. Lydia’s parents have come together from opposite sides of a great yearning: “more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; … more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in.” Her mother Marilyn, fair and pretty, dreads repeating her own mother’s life as a homemaker, inspired only by her battered copy of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook (“Make somebody happy today–bake a cake! . . . Is there anything that gives you a deeper sense of satisfaction?”); fitting in, for her would be easy but profoundly disappointing. Her father James, on the other hand, has stood out as different ever since his Chinese immigrant parents moved to Iowa and enrolled him in the private school where they had found jobs. “You’re the first Oriental boy to attend Lloyd [Academy],” his father reminds him on his first day; “Set a good example.” Though James wears the same uniform as his classmates, though, his difference is ineradicable: “he looked like no one they’d ever seen.” Later, at Harvard, James is still an outsider, even though he studies “the most quintessentially American subject he could find — cowboys.”
Marilyn’s mother tries to talk her out of marrying James. “Think about your children,” she urges Marilyn; “Where will you live? You won’t fit in anywhere.” James and Marilyn believe they can — even in the small Ohio town where they settle and where their children Nath, Lydia, and Hannah are born and grow up. The children don’t really fit in, however, though they hide the truth, concealing their isolation and trying to placate the parental unease that, in the guise of loving concern, infects every aspect of their life. The burden of her parents’ hopes falls especially hard on Lydia: nothing is ever proffered that isn’t tainted with expectations that “drifted and settled and crushed you with their weight.” It’s because she loves her parents and wants them to be happy that she accepts, over and over, all the things they want for her that she does not want for herself. Only when it’s too late does Marilyn realize what this acceptance has meant to Lydia, who never told her because she never could.
Everything I Never Told You is full of things that haven’t been said, along with things said that haven’t been heard. There’s no single secret, no revelation, that causes or explains Lydia’s death — one of the things the novel does best, I think, is show how complicated lives are, by the circumstances that hem them in and shape them, and by the other lives that intersect with them. Ng is particularly interested in the complication of ‘otherness,’ including both who or what is perceived as different and how difference is acted on. How far is the kind of insidious, hurtful rejection James has experienced also to blame for the tragedy that befalls his daughter, who is described in the local paper, after her death, as “one of only two Orientals at Middlewood High”? How much of Lydia’s struggle is the result of Marilyn’s despair at her own thwarted ambitions, her own inability to be something more, or something else, than a wife and mother? Though Everything I Never Told You is a probing novel about the systemic problems of racism and sexism, it emphasizes that in individual lives these forces are not abstractions: they are also, always and crucially, personal experiences, refracted through the prisms of specific people’s needs, fears, and loves. That human element is where the novel’s drama and mystery ultimately come from, and also its glimmerings of hope.