I don’t really need to say it again but life has just ramped up again. I guess that is what happens when I’m grounded in the summer because travelling is expensive and it all bunches up in the fall. And most of my activities haven’t inspired me to blog here. But when I got halfway through Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, I knew I wanted to write about it.
Released in July this year, this novel was listed on reading lists of women’s interest magazines and such. I honestly didn’t really get into it for a while. At first, I couldn’t keep straight the names of the (three) siblings from the parents, also referred to by first name. I wasn’t sure I even cared about Lydia’s mysterious disappearance leading to her death. There was a fog that descended on the family and the reader, too, that one that would hang over a family finding their teenage child has suddenly died and it looks like a suicide (if so, why??) but what if it is not …
Initially, I didn’t have a great deal of connection with James and Marilyn’s (the parents) love story. They are a biracial couple who met and married in the 1960s and they seemed to come together for unsympathetic reasons, to escape their paths in addition to true love (or lust). Their ignorance of the reality of their relationship was naive.
The flashbacks finally came to the point where Marilyn left her young family without so much as a note in order to finish her undergraduate degree and proceed to medical, dreams she put on hold when she got pregnant and got married instead. My mother has a similar passion for obtaining education and feeling that it was all sidelined by having a family and her own fortune in life. Mum finished her degree while raising us, an unfathomably difficult challenge. Marilyn learned she was pregnant again and had to return to her husband, never got her degree and proceeded to channel all of her dreams into Lydia. I sat up at attention realizing how intense the mother-daughter relationship would be and its implication: Lydia couldn’t take it and must have killed herself.
It was obvious to the reader and the other siblings how unfair it was for Marilyn and James to shower their attention on Lydia. Marilyn nurtured Lydia’s aptitude for the sciences and loved her the more she succeeded in a spiraling positive feedback loop. An Asian man in 1970s Middle America, James always felt like an outsider and saw in his beautiful biracial daughter the possibility and (false) hope that Lydia could be the well-adjusted and popular like he never was. I found myself fully identifying with the pressure to fulfill my mother’s dreams channeled through me, and being an outcast as Lydia was. And what can Lydia do? She is a minor. All she can do is bow her head and do what is deemed to be good for her.
What ensued was sibling rivalry between Lydia and Nath, her older brother. They needed each other as no one else could understand them the same way but strain and misunderstanding enters their relationship when Nath is accepted to Harvard and will leave Lydia at home and she can’t fathom it.
The youngest sibling, Hannah, was conceived sort of by accident and the reason Marilyn gave up her second attempt at university. She was a very interesting character. In a fit of obsession over Lydia, Marilyn forgot about her youngest child, and this shapes Hannah’s personality which develops in Lydia’s shadow. As a result, Hannah seems to lurk and merely observes everything. She might have the key to everyone’s problems by being overlooked and having observed it all.
Then there’ the neighbour Jack that Lydia started hanging out with and who has a reputation to bed every girl and leave a trail of broken hearts. A child of a single parent and not exactly properly raised, he is a perennial outsider who can understand Lydia’s feelings of being excluded. Jack and Nath have long been enemies over the most frustrating incidents that you can see come from misunderstandings and boy-come-man pride. Does Jack know what happened to Lydia and does he have the key to help the family heal?