Well, it has happened – my first 5 star rating of 2016. The last book I’ve given 5 stars to is The Invention of Wings, but this week, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng receives my literary adoration.
Everything I Never Told You is about the broken Lee family after the death of the middle child, Lydia. Ng crafts up five beautiful character portraits who struggle under different social restrictions in 1970’s Ohio: James, the father struggling with racism, Marilyn, the mother who despised sexism. These personal conflicts collide into their children: Nathan, the aspiring astronaut who is overshadowed by Lydia, who shoulders both her dad and mom’s unfulfilled dreams, and Hannah, the youngest who is neglected by all.
Before that she hadn’t realized how fragile happiness was, how if you were careless, you could knock it over and shatter it.
Alienation vs. Extraordinary
How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers.
It is interesting how James and Marilyn falls for each other for opposite reasons. For James, who grew up in a poor Chinese family and had to deal with racism all his life, Marilyn is his American dream woman and he swears to never have to make Marilyn work like his own mother. Marilyn, on the other hand, grew up under the guidance of her mother, a home ec. teacher, who taught her all the important skills of “keeping a house”, but her brain and heart yearned for the sciences. She never got to become a doctor, instead, she fell in love with James’s uniqueness – his ability to stand out, and settled into the life of a homemaker. At her mother’s death, Marilyn realized and regretted her unfulfilled dream and runs away from home for almost a year to get her degree. Her absence is the first major plot twist that breaks down her family.
This set-up is a compelling parallel and it is even more so because neither of them are aware of each other’s inferiority complex. Marilyn doesn’t know about James’s deep insecurity as a “foreigner” and James doesn’t know about Marilyn’s deep desire to be extraordinary. They misunderstand each other, blame themselves, and the things they never tell each other lead to a downfall in their marriage.
Vicariously Living through a Child
the lexicon of their family, the things they could never truly explain to outsiders: that a book or a dress meant more than something to read or something to wear; that attention came with expectations that—like snow—drifted and settled and crushed you with their weight.
It is too late for Marilyn to become a doctor, but for Lydia, it is just the beginning. Unlike her own mother, Marilyn strives to raise Lydia as an independent and intelligent woman, one who will never be confined to the traditional role of a homemaker. Conversely, James wants his children to be popular because he never was. Lydia, with her black hair and blue eyes – a perfect blend of Chinese and American – becomes his ray of hope.
Usually, the first child receives the most parental expectation, but in Nathan’s case, his parents skipped him. Marilyn is too focused on having a girl become a doctor, not a boy, and when James sees Nathan, he is reminded too painfully of his younger awkward self to foster a strong father-son relationship. This is unfortunate because Nathan would’ve had a higher probability of fulfilling both dreams if given the same support as Lydia.
Because unlike Nathan, Lydia is not gifted nor even slightly interested in science. One of the most touching scenes in the book is when Marilyn searches through Lydia’s room after her death, stacking all her science books in the order Lydia received them. At the very bottom was Marilyn’s mother’s cookbook. It was obvious then that it was not science Lydia loved, but her mother, and the fear of her mother disappearing again prompted young Lydia to take on the heavy load of Marilyn’s dream.
Saviour vs. Enemy
They never discussed it, but both came to understand it as a promise: he would always make sure there was a place for her. She would always be able to say, Someone is coming. I am not alone.
Together, Lydia and Nathan experienced the disappearance of their mother as well as the vicarious pressures their parents place on them and this creates an interesting sibling dynamic. Nathan is jealous of the constant attention and affection Lydia receives from their parents, so much that at one point in the novel, he pushes her into the lake while being fully aware that Lydia does not know how to swim. Naturally, he saves her afterwards. Nathan remembers this memory as an act of ugly bitterness. He was the one who pushed her in.
Lydia, on the other hand, only sees Nathan as her saviour. He was the one who pulled her out – out of the lake, out of the heavy weight of their parents’ expectations, out of the lonely sea of white faces. So when Nathan prepares to leave for Harvard, Lydia tries desperately to make him stay.
Similar to the parent relationship, the sibling relationship is full of misunderstanding and miscommunication. Lydia doesn’t know about Nathan’s mixture of guilt and resentment towards her, and Nathan doesn’t know about Lydia’s admiration and adoration towards him.
It’s intriguing how everybody wants to be in the place of the other. James, Marilyn, Lydia, and Nathan hate and love each other for the exact same reasons and none of them ever realize this until it is too late.
This is a novel about fragile family dynamics, about fragile love, about a fragile self, and it is all delicately wrapped together in intricate cultural narratives. For anyone who has ever felt alienated, underestimated, burdened, or ignored, this will be a riveting novel for you.