“Everything I Never Told You,” Celeste Ng’s excellent first novel about family, love and ambition, opens with a death.
Indeed, the demise of Lydia Lee, the teenage middle daughter of a Chinese American professor and his Virginia-born wife, is announced in the very first sentence. “Lydia is dead,” Ng writes. “But they don’t know this yet.”
With this as a starting point, “Everything I Never Told You” can’t help but feel a little like a mystery, and the pages that follow do reveal, gradually, the cause of Lydia’s death. At its core, though, Ng’s book is a conventional, domestically centered novel about an American family.
The Lees are outwardly successful. The father, James, is a professor at a college in a small Ohio town; Marilyn, his wife, is a former Harvard student who has put her ambitions on hold to raise their three children.
“Everything I Never Told You” unfolds in the 1970s, a time when the term “oriental” was tossed about freely. Still, despite the Lees’ interracial status, issues of ethnic and cultural identity are largely secondary to Ng’s main ambition here: probing the emotional wounds that have scarred the family.
These wounds have been inflicted by the universal difficulties faced by intelligent people in the late 20th century. Marilyn is estranged from her cold and distant mother, a home economics teacher who prays at the feet of Betty Crocker and doesn’t approve of her daughter’s marriage. “You’re sure,” she asks after meeting James for the first time, “that he doesn’t just want a green card?”
James is a U.S. citizen. At the same time, he has never quite felt he belonged anywhere, and not just because he grew up as the lone Asian student in a Midwestern boarding school where his father was the janitor. In the 1960s, he became one of the first Asians to lecture in U.S. history at Harvard — but his students treated him like an exotic interloper. Years later, he has not shaken his sense of loneliness. Nor is he any less driven. His ambitions hover like a cloud over the family, especially over his oldest son, Nath.
“Though Nath dreamed of MIT, or Carnegie Mellon, or Caltech … he knew there was only one place his father would approve: Harvard. To James, anything else was a failing,” Ng writes.
James and Marilyn are never cruel to their children. But they aren’t especially loving either. In her last encounter with her doomed daughter, Marilyn means to say, “I love you,” but instead urges Lydia to study harder: “Don’t let your life slip away from you.” To add a sense of urgency, Marilyn continues: “When I’m dead, that’s all I want you to remember.” Her mother’s words “sucked the breath from Lydia’s lungs.”
Ng is herself a graduate of Harvard who grew up in an academic family in Ohio, and she renders the Lees with great precision and empathy. She is especially adept at describing interior spaces and the subtle ways in which brothers and sisters come to know about each other’s lives.
Nath can see that “Lydia has never really had friends, but their parents have never known.” He’s privy to the many ways Lydia has feigned normality — by pretending to talk to friends on the phone, for instance. He is “amazed at the stillness in her face,” the way his sister “can lie without even a raised eyebrow to give her away.”
The novel is on less sure footing when Ng must craft the inevitable police procedures that follow the discovery of Lydia’s body at the bottom of a nearby lake. The scenes of mourning are not always convincing either — the parents among Ng’s readers may find James’ actions in the days after his daughter’s death either perplexing or contrived.
But those are quibbles in what is an accomplished debut. To begin with a teenager dying may be a melodramatic device, but Ng’s portrait of the relationship between Lydia and Marilyn, especially, feels true and fully realized. It’s also heart-wrenching.
Without realizing it, Marilyn (her own dreams of medical school forever postponed) is slowly killing her daughter with impossibly high expectations. “All her life she had heard her mother’s heart drumming one beat: doctor, doctor, doctor,” Ng writes of Lydia. “She wanted this so much, Lydia knew, that she no longer needed to say it.”
In the end, Ng deftly pulls together the strands of this complex, multigenerational novel. “Everything I Never Told You” is an engaging work that casts a powerful light on the secrets that have kept an American family together — and that finally end up tearing it apart.
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Everything I Never Told You
Penguin Press: 298 pp., $26.95