Friday, October 24, 2014

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

First lines are important. They can be the reason someone buys a book, or puts it back on the shelf. Great first lines live on in our collective cultural consciousness. We all know "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." or "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife" or "Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." These all snag the reader into the text immediately and set their scenes beautifully. Celeste Ng's lovely and painful novel, Everything I Never Told You, has its own intriguing and horrifying first line: "Lydia is dead." And there's no way from that first moment that the reader can think of anything but finding out everything that leads up to that opening moment.

The Lee family lives in a small community in Ohio in the 1970s. Father James is a professor at the local college. He's Chinese-American and has always hoped that his children will fit into their community better than he ever did. Mother Marilyn is a blue-eyed blonde who met James when he was at Harvard and she was at Radcliffe. She dreamed of becoming a doctor but had to shelve her dreams when she got pregnant. They have three children. Nath, is a high school senior getting ready to go off to college; Lydia, at sixteen, is the family favorite; and Hannah, is a serious, quiet child they often forget they have. On the morning that the novel opens, the family doesn't yet know that Lydia's body will be pulled from the lake by their home in a few short days; they just know she's not at the breakfast table on time. Even after they know that the special blue-eyed child who was the light of her parents' lives has died, there is the question of how she could possibly have died. As each person in the family comes to terms with Lydia's death and with their own idea of how, the family cracks and then breaks.

Each character in the novel narrates his or her own sections, allowing the reader to understand each character's feelings toward Lydia and the way that she impacted each of their lives. Although they are a family, in many ways they are related individuals more than any kind of unit. Each of them stands alone within the family structure, seeing things from their own perspective only. And each of them reacts to their grief differently. Lydia's death highlights all of this but it is not the genesis for it. The family has been non-communicative for a long time, allowing the pressure of expectations, the local racism, and the high cost of personal dreams imposed on someone else to cloak the unqualified love and support that a family should provide.

The novel is not really a mystery, although there is the question of just how Lydia died and what might be being hidden about the night she disappeared. Instead it is a psychological domestic drama with the pain of the present woven skillfully with the history of the family from its very beginnings. The writing is smooth and understated and the pacing is slow but never ponderous. There is a long, slow build to the truth of Lydia's death. In the end, I wanted to cry for Lydia and, in fact, for each member of her family for the pressures and the expectations and the failures they each faced both before and after her death, as spouses, as parents, as siblings. And if the novel is disturbingly sad in tone over all, there is a haunting and perfect beauty to the end.

A quiet novel, this is an amazingly fast read because you cannot fail to want to keep turning pages and find out what happened to Lydia. Ng does a lovely job rendering the suspicious racism of the time and the way in which grief destroys people individually. She manages to make the reader feel sorry for parents who were so obliviously self-absorbed with their own problems that they could only live vicariously through their daughter and who are gutted by the truth of her loss, which is no small task and her depiction of Nath and Hannah as surviving siblings is heartbreaking.  This is a novel you will think about, with characters you will pity, long after you close the cover.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.

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