Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.
When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened.
A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.” ~ Goodreads
Everything I Never Told You (released June 26, 2014) is one of my favorite reads this year. I can’t imagine it not ending up on my year end list of books that I thought were stand outs. And it’s a debut, which makes me very excited and happy for Ng’s future contribution to literature.
The synopsis clearly explains what this book is about. In the Literary/Contemporary Fiction genre with elements of mystery and suspense, it’s not a new story line. Another dysfunctional family, a strained marriage, a woman’s lost hopes and dreams of having something more than “housewife” as a title, characters that faced racial discrimination and siblings that vie for top position are not original. So why did this book impress me beyond others that attempt these topics?
The writing. The writing. The writing! Ng flawlessly, fluidly and thoroughly tackles all of these elements (and more) with such sharp precision. I was turning pages eagerly, not only to find out what happened to Lydia, but to spend time with each character as they divulged more secrets and let the reader in on the slow unravel of this family unit. The saying that “you never really know someone” rings loud and true in this story. Especially as a parent. That relationship is the longest one in life. From birth to death. This quote from the book left me uneasy as I digested the words because it couldn’t be more true. And yet somehow as a parent, we do feel that we know our kids since we were there from day one and for every milestone along the way. Looking back, as a teen, my parents never knew a thing about me, and remembering that scares me now as a parent.
(Marilyn’s thoughts after seeing Lydia suddenly walk on her own and feeling like she must have missed the attempts as a baby):
“But she’d felt as if she’d found a locked door in a familiar room: Lydia, still small enough to cradle, had secrets. Marilyn might feed her and bathe her and coax her legs into pajama pants, but already parts of her life were curtained off.”
My emotions ran ragged while reading this gorgeously written novel. I loved how James and Marilyn found each other in college and felt at peace because they were both different as outcasts, him being Asian and her being a woman in the medical field. The death of Lydia and the effect it had on her parents and siblings gutted me as a mom. Hearing each character’s point of view regarding their own insecurities gave such a human element to these fictional characters. I wanted to shake this family at times because they were so closed off to one another: hide the secrets, put the past in the past, don’t talk about failures. But not to worry, Ng wraps up the story perfectly. Not with a neat and tidy bow, but honestly. Beautifully. In a way that made my heart swell with even more love for my own family. With appreciation for second chances and for another day to make connections with the ones we love.
Can you tell how much I loved this book? This review is making me want to go and read it again!
*Thank you to Edelweiss and The Penguin Press for advance reader’s copy. I was not compensated or required to review this title. Quotes might be changed in the final copy.