“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.” This opening line in Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You is unique, refreshing, and had me immediately intrigued. Ng wastes no time to get down and dirty and spill the beans: a girl is dead. She also does not waste the reader’s time worrying about who killed Lydia; it doesn’t matter. The how and why matter so much in this story.
“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.” Everything I Never Told You really delves into the complexity of family and how deep damage can flow through a family tree, withering each branch and spreading the decay to the next level; it’s rather heartbreaking.
The Lee family is a delicate Chinese American family teetering on the brink of completely falling apart in the 1970s. Lydia, the most-loved, perfect middle child inherited her mother’s beautiful blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. James Lee only wants the best for his children, to fit in and be the social butterflies he never could be because of his Chinese roots which led him to be an outcast as a child. Marilyn Lee always pitied her mother for being a homemaker, only she became exactly that and fears the same dull monotony to fall upon her daughter Lydia, so she pushes her to follow her failed dream of becoming a doctor.
When Lydia’s body is found in the lake it doesn’t take long for the Lees to unravel. Nathan, Lydia’s intelligent older brother is convinced that Jack, the neighborhood bad boy, has something to do with his sister’s disappearance. Marilyn is sure that someone is to blame and she is hell-bent on getting to the bottom of it. James begins to question everything and turns to his overly-friendly, extremely young assistant. Little Hannah, the youngest of the siblings, stays out of sight with her watchful eyes and already seems to know everything.
Ng seamlessly transports the reader from the Lees nightmarish present to snippets of the past, from pivotal memories of the parents to the last few months leading up to Lydia’s murky end. Ng writes so beautifully, you can’t help but stop and appreciate her descriptive imagery; you just want to soak it up and take a bite out of it: “Morning sun fills the house, creamy as lemon chiffon, lighting the insides of cupboards and empty closets and clean, bare floors.”
Everything I Never Told You is very eye-opening to how damaging the simplest of secrets can be. “The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you—whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.”
Ng bears her readers the perfect gift in the form of Everything I Never Told You. Even though you’re told from the very beginning what happened, I still did not see Ng’s little surprise coming at the end. Everything I Never Told You is an excellent debut novel and should not be missed by book lovers craving a deep story.