The Book We're Talking About: ‘Everything I Never Told You' By Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng
The Penguin Press, $26.95
Publishes June 30, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think:

Readers looking for a good cry-fest this summer need look no further. Take it from me and my tear-drenched copy of Everything I Never Told You. Just don’t take it to the beach: You don’t want to spend your balmy vacation hours sobbing over your book, using your wide-brimmed hat to hide your reddened, blotchy cheeks from fellow sunbathers.

In any other setting, however, this read should not be missed. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You is a powerhouse of a debut novel, a literary mystery crafted out of shimmering prose and precise, painful observation about racial barriers, the burden of familial expectations, and the basic human thirst for belonging. The novel opens on the first morning of the disappearance of 16-year-old Lydia Lee, the much-cherished middle daughter of a biracial family already struggling to avoid undesired scrutiny in their small Ohio town. Though readers know Lydia’s tragic fate from the beginning, and the family learns it not long after, the events leading to her death remain puzzling, and the lack of closure pries open hidden fault lines in the seemingly happy family.

The lost Lydia, the blue-eyed child of blonde Marilyn and Chinese-American James, was the tether holding together her family, if only through her willingness to accept the pressure of living up to her parents’ expectations. As the novel unfolds, we see Lydia as a blank screen on which her parents have projected their own thwarted hopes -- for James, who has long been treated as an outsider due to his race, popularity and acceptance; for Marilyn, who once had to abandon her medical school plans, academic and professional success. It's difficult, even with the insights of her more perceptive siblings, to get at the real Lydia beneath the image her parents have constructed of her.

While Lydia always seemed easily popular and academically flawless, her inexplicable disappearance and death leaves each of her parents questioning the idealized conception they had of her -- and wondering, guiltily, if their unrelenting pressure to perform contributed to Lydia’s fate. As their private self-torment silently drives them apart, the family structure, already somewhat fragile, buckles dangerously. Meanwhile, the couple’s two surviving children, the Harvard-bound Nath and watchful young Hannah, nurse their own secrets and regrets related to Lydia’s disappearance.

Ng masterfully weaves together the stories of each family member, uncovering wounds going back decades and tracing the scars they’ve left behind them. James and Marilyn’s vicarious dreams, and their parents’ before them, have shaped Lydia’s life and her relationships to her siblings, and set the wheels of the book's central catastrophe in motion. As she untangles the five strands of the family drama, Ng also examines the psychological consequences of living a life filled with quotidian racism, another trauma that has echoed through the Lees' lives.

The clear-eyed observation and elegant prose throughout the novel bring depth and beauty to the more traditional narrative arc underneath. Ng’s novel grips readers from page one with the hope of unraveling the mystery behind Lydia’s death -- and boy does it deliver, on every front.

Everything I Never Told You is an exquisitely crafted gem of a literary mystery with scarcely a false step throughout. Neither heart-warming nor bleak, Everything I Never Told You captures the inexorability of life, the way small slights can add up to an existence of desperate solitude and the way minor breakdowns can set your family on a path to collapse. And yet, the warmth with which Ng considers her characters provides testimony to the goodness that can be found in people -- though this, perhaps, only makes the central tragedy all the more gut-wrenching.

What other reviewers think:
Publisher's Weekly: "Lydia is remarkably imagined, her unhappy teenage life crafted without an ounce of cliché. Ng’s prose is precise and sensitive, her characters richly drawn."

Kirkus: "Ng's emotionally complex debut novel sucks you in like a strong current and holds you fast until its final secrets surface."

Who wrote it?
Everything I Never Told You is Celeste Ng’s debut novel. She has published fiction and nonfiction in publications such as Bellevue Literary Review and the Kenyon Review Online, and she has been awarded the Pushcart Prize and the University of Michigan’s Hopwood Award.

Who will read it?
Fans of literary thrillers and mysteries, as well as readers interested in themes of race, family, and the search for a sense of belonging.

Opening lines:
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.”

Notable passage:
“More than this: the second he touched her, he knew that he had misunderstood everything. When his palms hit her shoulders, when the water closed over her head, Lydia had felt relief so great she had sighed in a deep choking lungful. She had staggered so readily, fell so eagerly, that she and Nath both knew: that she felt it, too, this pull she now exerted, and didn’t want it. That the weight of everything tilting toward her was too much.”

Rating, out of ten:
9. Ng’s gorgeously written, observant novel wraps poignant truths about race and family into a suspenseful, heart-wrenching mystery.

Read an excerpt of Everything I Never Told You: