Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, opens with the death of Lydia Lee. Her surviving family, who collectively idolized sixteen-year-old Lydia, struggle to make sense of her death in a collection of flashbacks and subsequent narratives. The story draws a sharp line in the sand – before death, and after. The divide works well as a temporal device, keeping the reader oriented, but it works thematically as well, examining the faulty structures of the Lee family as it comes crashing down around them.
Despite the dark subject matter, Ng’s prose is light, engaging, encouraging the reader to read on – Ng is the type of author to bring along to the beach and effortlessly lose yourself in for a few hours. The novel is a page-turner, but not in the traditional sense. This is no whodunit mystery. Rather, Lydia’s death is contextualized in the history of the family’s complex relationships. Before marriage, James Lee was a young, Chinese American professor desperate to fit in, his wife-to-be a Caucasian woman eager to stand out as a woman in the male-dominated medical profession. Like so many parents, they confer their aborted hopes and dreams onto their children, particularly Lydia, whom they believe shows the most promise of their three children, both socially and academically. Lydia, of course, sees it differently.
Some of the particular malfunctions of this family read as somewhat unlikely. For example, it strikes me as impractical that an interracial couple in the early 1960s would not have even discussed the racial and cultural differences between them (in my own domestic sphere, cultural differences have a tendency to manifest themselves in surprisingly mundane ways, like loading the dishwasher). The repression of their emotions manifest themselves in correspondingly exaggerated ways. But then again, the family’s collective failure to communicate their insecurities is the very premise of the novel.
That said, I disagree with reviews I have read claiming that the primary characters are such horrible people as to be unrelateable. Rather, I think Ng has managed to portray deeply flawed, deeply relatable characters. James and Marilyn are faulty, real people.
I look forward to reading more from Ng – even if I’m hoping my next beach novel is a bit lighter.