What if you don’t really know anything about the person you love the most? What if all of her words and all of her actions are said and done with intent to deceive? Does it hurt any less if the deception is motivated by love and not malice?
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” These are the first words of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. As they learn of her death and try to understand the why’s and how’s of it, we learn about them and about Lydia. “They” are her interracial family living in a small Ohio town in the 1970’s. Her father, a Chinese-American who has always stood out and only wants his children to fit in. Her mother, blond-haired and blue-eyed, who could not have both career and family and has not been able to make peace with her circumstances. Her brother, who is her only real ally and who lives in Lydia’s shadow. The younger sister, who exists by trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. Lydia is the reluctant sun around which they all orbit. Her death sets them adrift.
Mid-century small town America is as much a character in this novel as any of the people. The homogeny and provincialism of their environment shape their sense of self. Lydia’s father reacts to racism like a child hiding from the boogeyman by closing his eyes. Believing that if he can’t see it, it can’t see him. His differentness looms large and unacknowledged. A recollection of a road-trip where the “Oriental” father and honey haired mother with their three children were stared at openly at every rest stop and diner is almost more heartbreaking than Lydia’s funeral. The sad truth that marriages between people of different races (or between people of the same gender) still sometimes attract the same kind of unwanted attention is not lost on this reader, but in this time and place theirs is the only family that doesn’t look like everyone else. In this time and place too, it is nearly inconceivable that a mother could have a career. To have one, her mother believes, she must give up the other. Three times she chooses one or the other and each time she breaks a little more.
In recent years I have gotten out of the habit of reading realistic grown up novels. I have been reading books with space ships, elves, time travel, magic, post-apocalyptic settings… not real people having real experiences in real places. I read books that engage my imagination, but I don’t often read books that exercise my empathy muscles. The first post I made on Books n’at was about Karim Dimechkie’s Lifted by the Great Nothing, another realistic grown up book about a non-white family with a dad who attempted to reinvent himself as a quintessential American. So, it was hard not to think about that book while reading this one. I enjoyed Dimechkie’s book, but felt unsatisfied by it. The characters never quite rang true and the ending felt emotionally manipulative. Ng has Dimechkie beat on both accounts.
Everything I Never Told You reminded me that I like reading about real people and also reminded me why I don’t do it too often. It is exhausting and painful to watch a family fall apart and put itself together. It hurts to think about losing a child, a sister, a friend. And when the book is as well written as this one, it is even more painful. But it is also beautiful and, well, fun. I love a character with flaws and this book is full of them. Ng lays them bare in all of their imperfect glory and passes no judgement, creating characters that are endlessly analyzable and wonderfully sympathetic. And while the book requires an emotional investment on the part of the reader, it isn’t sappy or overplayed. I responded emotionally because I cared, not because Ng employed emotional triggers. I don’t really know how to articulate the difference between the two, but I know it when I read it.