Monday, June 8, 2015

‘Everything I Never Told You’ named Amazon’s #1 Best Book of the Year

Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, begins:

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

It is May 3, 1977 and Lydia is the favorite child of James and Marilyn Lee. She has her mother’s deep blue eyes and her father’s black hair.

James is Chinese-American, the son of a private school janitor and the lunch lady at the same school. He has a PhD in American Studies from Harvard and had hoped to be asked to stay on to teach there. Instead, he is told that he is not a good “fit” for Harvard and, instead, has to settle for a job at a small college in a small town in Ohio where he now has tenure. He has never felt that he “belonged,” has
always been conscious of his “otherness.” There are no other Asian families in town. His dream for Lydia is that she be popular and have lots of friends. His tone-deaf birthday present to her is a copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”

Marilyn is James’ blue eyed, blond-haired American wife whose own dreams of becoming a doctor were derailed by pregnancy and marriage (in that order). She had been an Ivy League student with a talent for science at a time when girls were expected to be nurses, teachers or stay-at-home moms. Period. She is determined that Lydia will not make the same mistakes, that she will excel in science, that she will be the physician Marilyn wanted to be.

Lydia’s brother Nathan (“Nath”) is in love with all things aerospace and wants to go to MIT or CalTech but knows only Harvard will satisfy his father; anything else will be seen as failure. The youngest child, Hannah, is the most observant but is also mostly ignored as the parents concentrate on the two older children: “They set up her nursery in the attic, where things that were not wanted were kept…”

Lydia is the blank canvas on which the parents relentlessly focus their own frustrated dreams: “All her life she had heard her mother’s heart drumming one beat: doctor, doctor, doctor.”

How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers… Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.

But Lydia has accepted the role of seeming to be what her parents want in order to hold the family together. She pretends to talk to friends on the telephone, to meet them at the mall, to be the “popular” teenager her father wants her to be. She pretends to be interested in science to keep her mother happy but she is failing her physics course.

Her brother Nathan, her mainstay, is leaving for Harvard. Jack, the neighborhood boy she tries to seduce, isn’t interested. “You know you’re the only girl in this school who’s not white?” he asks.

Now, Lydia is missing and the police have been called. Initially, the officers believe she’s simply run away but then her body is fished out of a nearby lake. Her mother is convinced she’s been lured there and murdered. Her father doesn’t know what to think. Nathan believes their neighbor Jack is somehow responsible.

The local newspaper reports the death and notes that Lydia and her brother are the only “Oriental” students in their school. A sidebar is headed “Children of Mixed Backgrounds Often Struggle to Find Their Place.”

The police ask for a list of her friends. Her parents call each girl on the list and are stunned to learn that most of them have not spoken to Lydia in years. Her mother, who has given her a diary every year, breaks the lock on the most recent one and discovers every page is blank. So are all the pages in all the other years. She finds a package of cigarettes and condoms hidden in Lydia’s backpack: “Now she looks down at the two tiny boxes, caught in the hammock of her skirt, and the outlines of Lydia’s life – so sharp and clear before – begin to waver.”

The police think it’s a suicide. Marilyn shrilly insists, “She wouldn’t have gone out there by herself. Do you think I don’t know my own daughter?” The reader knows the answer to that question.

Ng slowly unravels the mystery and, in a powerful conclusion, reveals what actually happened the night Lydia died.

Alexander Chee wrote in The New York Times (8/15/14):

Ng has structured “Everything I Never Told You” so we shift between the family’s theories and Lydia’s own story, and what led to her disappearance and death, moving toward the final, devastating conclusion. What emerges is a deep heartfelt portrait of a family struggling with its place in history, and a young woman hoping to be the fulfillment of that struggle. This is, in the end, a novel about the burden of being the first of your kind – a burden you do not always survive.

But, it is also a novel about the harm parents cause by projecting their own frustrated dreams on to their children, or by trying to live vicariously through them.

Celeste Ng has an MFA from the University of Michigan where she won the Hopwood award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in various literary journals and she is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize. In addition to being Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, Everything I Never Told You was named a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, and a Best Book of the Year by NPR, Booklist, The San Francisco Chronicle, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and others. Ng is the recipient of a 2015 Alex Award and to 2014-15 Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in Adult Fiction.

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