Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.
I’m pleased with my decision to put a few weeks of distance between me starting this book and having finished Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. The latter left such a lasting and unwavering impression on me, as I mentioned in my raving review, that I was unsure whether I’d get to experience such emotions again in the near future. Thankfully, though, after two weeks of longing, I was more than ready to dive back into the author’s wonderful world of stories within stories. And upon having completed the second chapter of Everything I Never Told You, where we get a better sense of the ongoing character dynamics, I knew I was in for a treat.
My personal highlights from the book include:
✓ The smaller the details, the more swept up I am in the story.
“But Nath’s seen Lydia at school, how in the cafeteria she sits silent while the others chatter; how, when they’ve finished copying her homework, she quietly slides her notebook back into her bookbag. After school, she walks to the bus alone and settles into the seat beside him in silence. Once, he had stayed on the phone line after Lydia picked up and heard not gossip, but his sister’s voice duly rattling off assignments—read Act I of Othello, do the odd-numbered problems in Section 5—then quiet after the hang-up click. The next day, while Lydia was curled on the window seat, phone pressed to her ear, he’d picked up the extension in the kitchen and heard only the low drone of the dial tone. Lydia has never really had friends, but their parents have never known. If their father says, “Lydia, how’s Pam doing?” Lydia says, “Oh, she’s great, she just made the pep squad,” and Nath doesn’t contradict her. He’s amazed at the stillness in her face, the way she can lie without even a raised eyebrow to give her away.”
Sings like Jean-Ralphio SPECIFIC.
✓ The familiar atmosphere and making every family member more well-rounded by going back to their adolescence is something I always enjoy from the author.
“He spent twelve years at Lloyd and never felt at home. At Lloyd, everyone seemed to be descended from a Pilgrim or a senator or a Rockefeller, but when they did family tree projects in class, he pretended to forget the assignment rather than draw his own complicated diagram. Don’t ask any questions, he prayed silently as the teacher marked a small red zero beside his name. He set himself a curriculum of studying American culture—listening to the radio, reading comics, saving his pocket money for double features, learning the rules of the new board games—in case anyone ever said, Hey, didya hear Red Skelton yesterday? or Wanna play Monopoly? though no one ever did.”
The above passage really nails down his feeling out of place in a predominately white school.
“And James? What had he thought of her? He would never tell her this, would never admit it to himself: he had not noticed her at all, that first lecture. He had looked right at her, over and over, as he held forth on Roy Rogers and Gene Autry and John Wayne, but when she came to his office he had not even recognized her. Hers had been just one of the pale, pretty faces, indistinguishable from the next, and though he would never fully realize it, this was the first reason he came to love her: because she had blended in so perfectly, because she had seemed so completely and utterly at home.”
He got together with Marilyn to blend in, while she chose him to stand out, like the author pointed out before: “Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in.” And now bringing home the point by showing and not just telling… The Shadow of the Wind is shook.
While reading Everything I Never Told You I had only one repeating thought that cemented the fact that Celeste Ng’s knows how create stories within stories. There is such a somber mood that is perfectly captured throughout the book. The story slowly develops but is never boring. Like trying to piece together the missing pieces of a puzzle.
Inevitably, if I compare this read with Little Fires Everywhere, I’d say it was a bit subsided in its complexity because it didn’t feature as many perspectives. Our main focus throughout the book is the Lee family and the aftermath of their stricken tragedy. So I was missing that sprawling look at different characters and point of views that we had in LFE. Where that one was so loud and tumultuous in my head with trying to pierce together ever thread of detail, this one offered something more quiet and introspective.
But that’s not to say that Everything I Never Told You wasn’t a sharp, refreshing look at family-driven dramas. Celeste Ng excels once again at make everything fall into place, from the tiniest detail to the bigger plot twists. And not twists, really, because her books all start with the mystery uncovered in the first sentence: “Lydia is dead.” “…Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.” We instead follow the unfolding of their lives that brought the end results, which grew tremendously important to me.
“How had this all gone so wrong?”
The author also highlights the daring notion for these parents that their child might desire “something she wanted, not something they wanted for her.” Too many times did it feel like they weren’t seeing their daughter, “the reluctant center of their universe,” rather just a younger version of themselves; trying to fix all their past mistakes by having her avoid making her own set of choices. I was stunned watching this very pivotal moment unfold.
“The door creaks open, and Marilyn slowly raises her head, as if Lydia might somehow, impossibly, appear. For a second the impossible happens: a small blurred ghost of little-girl Lydia, dark-haired, big-eyed. Hesitating in the doorway, clinging to the jamb. Please, Marilyn thinks. In this word is all she cannot phrase, even to herself. Please come back, please let me start over, please stay. Please.”
The desperate “please” haunted me for hours.
All this and more shines so brightly with Ng’s rigorous writing style. And I personally cannot wait for all her future works.