Should parents’ dreams be lived through the lives of their children?
Before she married, Marilyn had dreams of becoming a doctor, but then children came along. Her dreams were different from her mother’s, but as a mother, she has great plans for her daughter, Lydia – to make up for what she didn’t achieve herself.
Unfortunately, this dream will not be fulfilled. At the age of 16, Lydia is dead.
The story opens with Lydia’s drowning in the lake near her home. As it unfolds, the intense passion Marilyn has for her daughter to achieve is revealed. The reasons for this drive are clearly tied to her own need to achieve which has been thwarted by marriage.
There are other frustrations in ‘Everything I Never Told You’, in a family which is loving but unable to communicate all they feel. In a small town which is slowly adjusting to multiculturalism, the Lees are a novelty. As a Chinese-American family, they struggle to blend in – a concept James, the father, had battled (though being American-born), and something Marilyn’s mother had warned them of when they first married.
As much as Marilyn dotes on Lydia, there is little attention given to her siblings, Nath and Hannah. Locked out of her attention, both Nath and Hannah fail to speak up about things their parents should really know – about themselves and things they observe about the family. And then it is too late.
Some may find the intensity of Marilyn’s efforts to drive Lydia’s future extreme. Similarly, the treatment of the family within the community and their lack of integration may seem harsh, but set in between the late 1950s and 1970s it is a reflection of life experiences for those with cultural differences.
‘Everything I Never Told You’ also shows how, even in a loving family, there can be differing perspectives on what happens day-to-day. Without good communication, things can go unsaid and misunderstandings arise. There are many examples of what-ifs and story-turns that occur because someone fails to say what they really think or know. Clearly, Lydia’s inability to voice her feelings has fatal consequences.
Some may be frustrated with the way the characters behave in ‘Everything I Never Told You’, but Celeste Ng’s debut novel (which took 8 years and 4 drafts to complete) is both moving and clever. It portrays an unimaginable family drama – the death of a child – and weaves past and present to explain how it came about. It leaves the question at the end – who is really responsible?
Following this best selling debut novel, Ng has written a second one, ‘Little Fires Everywhere’. She talked to Goodreads interviewer Janet Potter about teen drama, race, Twitter, and the fear of writing about a place you love. Read the interview here on GoodReads.
Here, Celeste introduces ‘Everything I Never Told You’:
Are there times when you don’t speak up for fear of saying the wrong thing?
How might Lydia’s life have worked out better?
N.B. this is adult fiction but accessible for mature readers.