The following is without equivocation or hyperbole: Celeste Ng’s 2014 novel, everything i never told you is one of the best books I’ve ever read because of how achingly, deeply heartbreaking and tragic the story is, and how exquisitely Cg unfurls its five-member family breaking not at the seams, but from deep behind the rib cage.
Weirdly, her novel, which follows a Chinese American family in the 1970s dealing with the aftermath of a member of their family drowning to death seemingly by suicide, feels like a peaking point after the last two novels I’ve read this past weekend, Ashley Audrain’s, The Push, and Augusten Burroughs’s memoir, Running with Scissors. All three of these books are about parenthood, motherhood in particular, the difficulty of being a child under those circumstances, sibling relationships, and how husbands and wives drift apart over time, unlearning each other slowly, quietly. Amusingly, Burroughs mused that he would give anything to have a normal mother who made Hamburger Helper, and in everything i never told you, Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, makes her Hamburger Helper, and yet, Lydia can’t wait to be untethered from her.
Marilyn grew up in the 1930s and 1940s, when her mother, and society, expected women to get a “good Harvard man” and be a homemaker, but Marilyn wants to be a doctor against all the sexist odds of physics teachers thinking she should go into home economics instead, or fellow physics students (males) literally pissing in her test tubes, and so on. But then, she ends up meeting a would-be Harvard man, James Lee, who teaches at a local Ohio college, and is pregnant soon after; thus, she swallows up her dreams.
On the other hand, James wants nothing more than to blend in because he’s Chinese in Ohio at at time when the state and the nation at large treated Asians as exotic “creatures” to mock and deride and stare at. Unfortunately, to distance himself from the stereotype and to blend in, I think he by definition, distances himself from his poor Chinese parents who fled China for California, including not speaking their language so he’d have a more pristine English accent. He even goes so much against the grain of the stereotype to blend in, that he teaches a course on American cowboys. When he meets Marilyn, he can’t believe that this beautiful white woman is interested in him, and they get married, despite Marilyn’s mother’s protestations that she will regret it.
After they get married and Marilyn is pregnant with Nathan, who goes by Nath, Marilyn is estranged from her mother, and they both leave their past behind. They think this will be the fresh start that they need to build their perfect little family. But you can’t build a foundation when you’ve got your head in the sand.
Along the way, they have Lydia, who becomes the child both James and Marilyn unwittingly pour all of their repressed hopes and dreams into, and try to live vicariously through her. With James, it’s his desire to be popular, so he constantly is urging Lydia to make friends and go to dances, and even cringingly (I literally guffawed because it was that bad) buys her, How to Win Friends & Influence People, for Christmas. And with Marilyn, it’s her desire to be a doctor, so she’s constantly breathing down Lydia’s neck about biology homework, and buying her books about pioneering women in science, and so on. She even, contra the dad, discourages her from making friends because she needs to study so she can get into Harvard.
Both parents are so focused on Lydia, they largely ignore that Nath is on the Harvard track, and he has a budding passion and interest in space, bolstered by space exploration in the 1960s, including the moon landing. So, this creates Nath’s own bitterness and sense of wanting to be untethered from his parents, even though in a practical sense, he already is.
When Marilyn’s mother dies of a stroke, and she revisits her childhood home where her mother’s main possession of any note is a Betty Crocker cookbook, Marilyn is so aghast, and terrified, of ending up like that, that she decides to abandon her family and continue her pursuit of being a doctor. However, a mere a nine weeks in, she finds out she’s pregnant with Hannah, and returns home. If Nath is ignored by his parents in favor of Lydia, you can at least say they are aware of Nath’s presence, whereas Hannah is forgotten completely and blends into the background. So much so, that she is the quintessential fly on the wall of the family, who notices things the others, so obsessed with their own lives, don’t notice, like Lydia’s fake smiles, or how Jack, the neighbor boy who Nath suspects of killing Lydia, is actually totally in love with Nath.
To the former, the reason Lydia is fake smiling is that because when her mother disappeared, she promised herself that if her mother returned, she would be completely obsequious to keep her mother from ever disappearing again, which is why she becomes such a “willing” vessel for her mother’s hopes and dreams (as well as her dad’s). But eventually, of course, she can’t take it.
Only Nath (and Hannah notices it, but Lydia ignores her, too) are able to help Lydia get through this pressure inasmuch as she has thus far, but even that relationship frays when Nath is accepted to Harvard and Lydia worries he will leave her behind. Because Nath, like his parents and Lydia’s undiscovered and unexplored ones, begins to dream, and when he does we get this line from Cg, “Dreaming of his future, he no longer heard all the things she did not say.” The “she” here is, of course, Lydia.
But, contrary to what the police suspect (and Marilyn is right, they would have kept investigating the case, and investigating it as a murder, if Lydia was white), Lydia did not kill herself. But she wasn’t murdered, either. Which is perhaps the saddest part of this whole affair: Lydia was so damn determined to finally break free from the restraints, albeit it well-intentioned and loving restraints, of her parents, to forge her own path, that she decided to try to swim in the nearby lake and hoist herself up onto the dock as a sort of rebirthing moment. Instead, because she can’t swim, she drowned and died. And her family will never, can never, know that it was an accident.
On the day of her funeral no less, James, in his grief, has an affair with his student assistant, which Marilyn, Nath and Hannah come to realize. It should be noted that the student assistant is Chinese, so James is deluded momentarily into thinking that if he had married someone like her, then Lydia never would have died. That it was their family being so different that eventually led to her demise. On the flip side, Marilyn thinks Lydia was murdered because a mother knows her daughter, and she knows her daughter wouldn’t have gone out on the lake by herself. But the title of the book speaks to her tragic wrongness.
It is just awful. You can’t even call what happened to this family Ce has perfectly depicted on the page as a terrible, tragic case of miscommunication because largely, much of what happens or doesn’t happen is a result of that which goes unsaid. It started with James and Marilyn thinking they could never talk about their past again, or about the fact of their differences, or the resentments they still held about squelching their hopes and desires, and how all of that would spread like a virus to the children and branch off in different ways because a virus destroys bodies differently, and so, here that family is, broken by grief, hobbling along, and totally unprepared for what grief cracks open. And it kills me, because I think their love is genuine all around (accept for poor Hannah who is forgotten about until both parents, after weeks of grieving, finally remember her at the end), but tragically misplaced and misallocated. If only they could have aired all of this out before Lydia’s fatal trip to the lake. If only.
Regret, she’s the ultimate mistress of this story, not the student assistant.
My favorite fiction books are ones in which we have a relatively common premise — a dead girl and a grieving family seeking answers — and by virtue of the writer’s immense talents and fresh perspective, we are given a wholly unique, deeply engrossing story that make what is old hat new again.
This is my first introduction to Ng, and yeah, it was a great start. I must devour everything she’s written now.