Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”
So begins Celeste Ng’s riveting novel, Everything I Never Told You, which, as you can see, has all of the elements of a mystery we’re familiar with. A small town, a family, a missing daughter. But from this trope, we are given new things to grapple with: first, we know immediately that the daughter is dead. Second, this daughter is not the same blonde haired blue eyed young darling we’re used to feeling feelings for. This is an Asian American girl in a mixed Chinese-White family, and so there are new things to grapple with.
Let me say this, to those who don’t already know my reading preferences: this novel sounds like something I might pick up, read a page or two, think that’s some lovely writing, and put back on the shelf, never to actually read. And that is because of one thing: plot. I disdain overly plotted novels, the ones that feel contrived and convenient, overburdened with the author’s hand. Give me novels about people being people over mystery thrillers any day. But, and I say this honestly and from a point of cynicism, this one is different. How, do you ask?
For one, the writing really is lovely, and that alone was enough to make me stay. It’s soft, poetic, but not flashy or filled with tricks. It invites you in, asks you to hang out for a bit. It’s not the exclusivity of Ben Lerner, not the language play of Lauren Groff, and not the simplicity of J.K. Rowling. It’s in a sweet spot in between all of those that really, really works.
Second, Ng places her characters in 1977 Midwest. (I lived in Pittsburgh. Ohio counts as the Midwest.) It’s only a few years after the final state battled for the right to inter-marry. Racial tensions are high. (In fact, I thought a more accurate depiction would have been to increase the racial tension in the town, but perhaps Ng didn’t want to change the focus of the novel too much.) James, the patriarch of the family, teaches American Cowboys at the local college and knows what the students think every semester when he enters the room to teach. He sees how people look at him and his family. But, he has swallowed so much racism throughout his life that during one particular scene of his son Nath swimming at the local pool, the reader endures an excruciating exchange amongst the white kids and Nath that leads James, with all his buried internalized racial inferiority to pronounce to his inquiring wife Marilyn: “Some kids teased him at the pool today. He needs to learn to take a joke.” This internalized stuff creates much more tension later on, when we see Marilyn and James breaking down to their constituent parts, screaming at each other while the distance between what they mean and what is perceived is vast. The one disappointment here is that Marilyn never grapples with her whiteness, let alone with the race of her children and husband. It did kind of feel like a missed opportunity.
Ng does an amazing job of creating tension throughout the story, as we flash back in time and forward again, learning what really happened to Lydia
only at the very end, a truth that the rest of the family never gets the relief of learning for themselves. Each character is deft at secrecy, withholding so much more than they reveal. Amongst the three children, the two oldest, Nath and Lydia have the closest connection, but even this becomes stifled when Lydia starts hiding the acceptance letters to prestigious universities coming in for Nath, for fear of him leaving. Nath frequently finds himself bogged down under the weight of their parents’ admiration for Lydia, which Lydia herself finds suffocating, but Nath, unlike Lydia, imagines a clear escape for himself: college, away from Ohio.
Hannah, the youngest, is our fly on the wall, our quiet, observing presence, who occasionally doubles as the narrator. She watches her family, observes their interactions, seems to know everyone better than they know themselves. I thought Ng’s use of her was pivotal. Though we rarely hear from her, the book would certainly being lacking without her presence.
Of course, there are things that are glossed over and a tad unbelievable. Marilyn and James’s first meeting is one, wherein Marilyn the student lunges at him during his office hours on the first day of class. This was nothing short of jarring, and to my professor friends, laughably false, even for the ’70s. Some of the quiet moments observed by Hannah feel too profound for a young girl. I wasn’t sold on the revelation about the “bad boy” who is pegged by Nath to have some knowledge of what happened to Lydia. But these moments are small, and infrequent, and we can learn to live with them due to the ferocity of the rest of the novel.
This is not a happy novel, but Ng is deliberate in planting glimmers of hope, however small, that help us to not feel overwhelmed by the end. All in all, this is a well-crafted novel by a skilled novelist. Add this one to your summer reading list now!