In her first published novel, Celeste Ng peels back the layers of a grieving family reeling from the loss of their teenage daughter.
In “Everything I Never Told You,” Ng tells the story of the Lees, a Chinese-American family living in the 1970s in the fictional city of Middlewood, Ohio. The book is both a narrative of a family’s attempt to cope with loss, and a mystery. The body of the Lees’ middle daughter, Lydia, was found in a lake, and it is unclear if her death was an accident or a suicide.
Ng divides the chapters between past and present. The chapters in the past recount Lydia’s recent encounters with her brother, sister, parents and high school friends. The chapters in the present time show how her death sends continual shock waves to the Lee family.
As the book progresses, Ng reveals that Lydia’s death was just one of several Lee family mysteries. Lydia had styled her life to fit her mother’s dream — Marilyn Lee had wanted Lydia to become a physician, a profession she herself had pursued and then discarded in favor of marriage.
Lydia’s reason for acceding to her mother’s wish was one of the secrets she kept from everyone. Several years previously, Marilyn had left the family without a word and enrolled at community college to finish her degree. Lydia vowed to be a perfect daughter if her mother would just return home. But it was an impossible vow to keep. Although bright, Lydia was not the potential Rhodes scholar that Marilyn wanted her to be. Lydia at first grudgingly accepts that fact as subpar grades show up on her assignments. From here, Ng shows the familiar spiral of teenage failure slipping into lassitude and apathy.
It is not until weeks after Lydia’s death that evidence of her secret life appears. A failing grade on a school exam is one of several clues, and it reignites the family’s feelings of grief and guilt.
It is to Ng’s credit that it is sometimes difficult for the reader to keep going; the pain and unhappiness is palpable. But it is true to the Lees, and Ng tells all.
Steve Novak is a book critic in Cleveland.