Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Problem with Living through Our Children: Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You

Celeste Ng's debut novel Everything I Never Told You opens with a spoiler: "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet. . . ." Thus a potential whodunit increasingly asks not Who? but Why?

Lydia Lee, on whose death the story focuses, is the middle child of a Chinese father and American mother. Her older brother knows he can never compete with Lydia for his parents' affection. Her younger sister lives in the shadows, barely able to get their attention.

Each member has to come to grips with the loss of Lydia, with only his or her incomplete information about the troubled girl who hid her emotions so completely.

Her father James, always feeling the outsider, invested all his dreams in Lydia's popularity and social life, so much so that she pretends to have phone calls with girls her age long after any possibility of friendship has passed. She has to bear her father's embarrassing attempts to seem cool, particularly in front of her peers, dropping the names of celebrities of the seventies, when the story is set, or singing along to top forty hits when they're in the car.

Marilyn, her mother, essentially lost her mother when she married James, unwilling to deal with the woman's antagonism toward the marriage. As she points out, at the time they wed, their marriage was still illegal in some states. Of even greater impact to her psyche, though, was her abandonment of the dream of becoming a doctor, a dream she transfers to Lydia.

Ng has taken what could have been a formulaic story and given it a twist, moving between points of time and points of view, maintaining squirm-inducing, page-turning suspense through the novel. She even maintains cultural accuracy writing about a decade before she was born. (According to an interview in the Plain Dealer, Ng graduated from high school in 1998, while the climax of the novel is set in 1977.) She has successfully followed the "Write what you know" dictum, while doing the research to produce a successful first novel.


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