In Everything I Never Told You, much is unspoken. Living in suburban Ohio in the 1970s, the Lee family has many secrets, regrets, unfulfilled dreams and hijacked ambitions. There are letters never sent nor received, tchotchkes stolen, misunderstandings big and small, of innermost feelings repressed and silent pacts.
Part of this happens because of the time period in which Celeste Ng sets this, her debut novel. (And may I interject and say that this is one hell of a debut novel.) This is one of those stories where the setting and time period is almost as much of a character as the characters themselves. Ng flawlessly captures every detail of life in the groovy 70s: sunbathing while coated in baby oil, the National Anthem coming on TV when the late-night station goes off the air, dialing a rotary phone and listening in on another person’s conversation.
Back then, society’s norms almost demanded us to capitulate to others’ needs and to project one’s unfulfilled ambitions onto one’s children. The idea that women could pursue a career in the sciences–or have any life beyond the kitchen–was still revolutionary.
“You loved so hard and hoped so much and then you ended up with nothing. Children who no longer needed you. A husband who no longer wanted you. Nothing left but you, alone, and empty space.” (pg. 246)
The central event in Everything I Never Told You happens in the very first sentence. “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” Lydia is the 16-year-old daughter of James and Marilyn Lee, and from that auspicious beginning, Ng expertly unravels for her reader how James and Marilyn met (professor falls in love with student), married and became parents to Lydia, Nathan and–surprise!– Hannah.
I did have a slight issue with the character of Hannah, as well as a plot development toward the end of the novel. On the latter, I’m not mentioning this for spoiler reasons. I understand why it was there–another example of the cultural and societal norms of things unspoken–but it felt gratuitous and somewhat unnecessary because the rest of the novel was so strong. And while I understand why Hannah was included in the story, at times she seemed extraneous and–true to her character–in the way. I’m not convinced that she was necessary for the reader to understand the theme of the novel.
Which can be summed up in a few lines found toward the novel’s conclusion, when the events leading up to Lydia’s death unfold for the reader’s full understanding:
“Instead, they will dissect this last evening for years to come. What had they missed that they should have seen? What small gesture, forgotten, might have changed everything? They will pick it down to the bones, wondering how this had gone so wrong, and they will never be sure.” (pg. 271)
Sometimes – oftentimes – our lives turn out differently than we planned. Terrible things happen. But by listening to what the people we love are and aren’t saying, admitting to our deepest wishes and exposing our most fragile insecurities, our lives and those around us have a chance to change for the better.
Everything I Never Told You won the ALA/YALSA Alex Award 2015, given to one of ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18. I found it incredibly well-written and suspenseful enough to hold my attention. And I typically shy away from stories about dead or dying children. I chose this because Celeste Ng grew up in Pittsburgh and I have tickets for her appearance here as part of Authors on Tour on June 1.
What’s Authors on Tour? So glad you asked. Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures and Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh have teamed up to present authors who are on a national publicity tour, either with a new hardback or recent paperback book release. We’ve enjoyed a great evening with 2014 Man Booker Prize Winner Richard Flanagan and Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk will be here May 21. Celeste Ng wraps up the series. All of the authors will appear at the historic Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Lecture Hall in Oakland, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. Interesting in joining us? Details for how to get tickets are here.
~ Melissa F.