The story begins with a missing teenage girl named Lydia Lee and, while this mystery may sound like the premise of a thriller, “Everything I Never Told You” focuses more on the interior lives and complex relationships of the girl’s family members. Celeste Ng describes how Lydia maintained an image of being a popular and successful student, but in reality was a loner who was failing at the science and math courses which her mother Marilyn pushed her to excel at. Like many families, there’s harmony on the surface but dark undercurrents to the lives of these characters. Over time they’ve become so accustomed to not speaking about personal pain and emotional need that they become in some essential ways unknown to each other. The hidden nature of their lives becomes untenable when faced with the enormous tragedy of Lydia’s disappearance. Gradually we learn about their unexpressed desires and unacknowledged pain – especially in regards to both overt and more subtle racist treatment the children receive as the only mixed race children in their Middle-American town.
The father James is the child of Chinese immigrants and has worked hard to achieve a position as a professor, but struggles to be accepted as fully American despite being born in this country. The mother Marilyn is equally academically gifted, but didn’t receive opportunities to fulfil her scholarly promise. Nor did she obey her mother’s wishes not to marry an Asian man leading her to be estranged from both her family and her ambitions to become a doctor. As such both parents place different kinds of pressure on their children to succeed in ways they were not able to in their own lives. However, there is also a lot of tenderness in their attempts to connect and encourage their children. There’s a heart breaking scene where James buys a Christmas present for Lydia hoping she’ll appreciate it but realises how badly he’s disappointed her. Equally Marilyn frequently buys Lydia scientific texts hoping to inspire her, but her daughter has no interest in them. I found it moving how James encourages his children to keep up with the latest trends and fashions even though he was hopelessly disconnected from what’s really happening in the children’s world. The parents obviously mean well, but they don’t realise the negative pressure they place upon them.
There’s a tragedy at the heart of this story but I appreciate the way Ng creates an optimistic picture whereby the family can take steps to be more upfront about their feelings and form deeper connections to each other. Perhaps one of the most important characters is the youngest child of the family Hannah. Though she’s largely silent and doesn’t play much of a dramatic role she’s very observant and watches the changes occurring within her family life. I felt I could strongly relate to her in the way she often feels like an outsider, yet finds this advantageous in some ways as she’s not subject to the same pressures to conform. I appreciate how this novel shows that there can be a terrible silence at the centre of many families which prevents them from supporting each other in the ways that they should and how important it is to accept the unique qualities of every member of the family rather than trying to make them become something they’re not. I was encouraged to finally read this novel since it’s Ng’s debut and I just went to see her speak at the Southbank Centre in London a couple days ago. She has a powerful way of writing about families, motherhood and the pain of being made to feel different.