by Celeste Ng, 2014
If there’s one thing I hate, it’s when a book or a movie screams out, “This is important! Important subjects discussed here!” I thought this in particular about the movie Crash which, for all its good intent, wanted to ensure the audience knew that this was a movie about Race and subsequently beat us over the head with it. It’s much rarer when a story can tackle these big ticket items with grace and subtlety, simultaneously acknowledging their presence while not tiring the audience with its cries. Yet, this is exactly what Everything I Never Told You does, in beautiful prose, in a story just sad enough to feel true.
Sixteen year old Lydia Lee is dead when the book opens. The police are contacted, friends are questioned, and eventually her body is found. Lydia’s older brother Nath, who has just returned from a weekend trip to Harvard as a prospective student, knows that the police don’t have the whole story and, though he’s afraid to speak up, he’s certain that their neighbor Jack, with whom Lydia has been spending a lot of her time, has something to do with her death. The book isn’t a mystery per se, although we’re made to wait to discover the circumstances surrounding the death until the end, but it is a complete unraveling of the inner workings of this family, pressed upon by cultural and personal obligations until Lydia became its bursting point.
I’m left wondering if parents can’t help but project their own failings onto their children. I’m not a parent, so I can’t say that I would be different, for Ng mines this stereotype in such a gentle way that is neither accusatory nor placing blame that causes me to question if this is the inevitable fate to which we as children and as parents are all doomed. For all her own mother’s efforts to the contrary, Marilyn (Lydia’s mother) was determined to stand out. She would go to college to become a doctor, not to meet one of those “wonderful Harvard men,” and settle down to a life of wife- and motherhood. And yet that’s exactly what happens after she becomes involved with James, a quiet American-born son to illegal Chinese immigrants who wants nothing more than to blend in, to not be noticed because he looks different and his parents speak differently, to be popular and well-liked. Perhaps because they are opposites they are a good fit for each other, but their failed dreams push and pull at Lydia, neither one allowing her to be the person she truly is.
Somehow, in this relatively short family-centered story, Ng manages to explore the monumental topics of feminism and race. What is brilliant is that she doesn’t attempt this exploration on a grand scale, but focuses on how they inform our everyday behaviors and beliefs, whether lifting us up or knocking us down. We may be quick to dismiss such microaggressions as trivial – schoolmates pulling their eyes so they mimic those of Asians, lab partners insisting that a jar must be opened, a burner must be lit for you – but Ng illustrates how such “trivialities” pile up and can eventually cause our lives to topple. Haunted by her mother’s remark that she should marry someone more like herself, i.e. white, Marilyn cannot help but offer a similarly stinging rebuke to the news that the police have stopped searching for her daughter: “If she were a white girl, they’d keep looking.” There is little conclusion for the Lees’ story, as is so often the case in life, and we’re left knowing only that they must somehow, amidst their broken dreams and fractured family, find some way to carry on.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a debut novel.]