For some reason our library has Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng classified as a mystery and, if you assume that you don’t know how sixteen year old Lydia died and want to find out, then it is a mystery. But really it’s not. It’s the story of longing and desire and fitting in vs. being different.
It is in the late 1960s that Marilyn, a college junior, meets and falls in love with James Lee, her teaching assistant. After a brief relationship, Marilyn finds herself pregnant. She and James get married and her dreams of medical school are washed away. Her mother is a home ec teacher and her credo for success in life is keeping a happy home, cooking the right meals and having everything spic and span. Coming from a ‘proper’ Southern family, the thought of Marilyn’s marriage to a person of Chinese descent is abhorrent, or at least, improper.
By mid-1977, the Lees have three children, Nathan, off to Harvard in the Fall, Lydia, a high school junior and apple of her parents’ eyes and younger Hannah, all but forgotten, relegated to a bedroom in the attic. It is with shock, that the family wakes up on May 3 and Lydia is nowhere to be found. When she doesn’t turn up, the Lees call the police who, as we all know, say this happens all the time and Lydia will return soon. Two days go by and still no Lydia.
A neighbor mentions a lone row boat out in the middle of the nearby lake which prompts to police to drag the lake, unfortunately finding Lydia’s body in the process. The police ultimately rule the death a suicide but Marilyn ‘knows her daughter’ and she wouldn’t do such a thing.
Everything I Never Told You probes the secret lives and thoughts of Lydia, Nathan who is virtually ignored by his parents, Hannah who has found a way to be invisible, James, who grew up ‘different’ by being Chinese in a Caucasian world and always wanted to blend in and Marilyn, whose aspirations and dreams were shattered and vowed never to let that happen to Lydia. All of this is seen both in the aftermath of Lydia’s death and in the years preceding it as well.
More psychological introspection than mystery, Everything I Never Told You is just plain sad. In this age when teenage suicide is so prevalent, when the pressure on teens to succeed in school and in life is so strong, when I’m sure many parents’ unachieved dreams are hoisted on their children’s shoulders, this book is a strong supporter of let kids be kids for a while longer…they have their whole adult lives to be grown ups.
It’s funny (or sad) that not much has changed since 1977, only the pressure on kids today has multiplied geometrically. Everything I Never Told You is worth the journey.