Imagine the shock of calling your three children to breakfast one morning and learning that only two of them are in the house. Next, imagine that you will never see that missing child again. Let that sink in for a moment.
This is exactly what happens to James and Marilyn Lee at the beginning of Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You. Shockingly, their daughter Lydia, a high-achieving high school student, has been snatched from their lives forever – and there is not a thing in the world they can do about it.
The Lees (James is Chinese-American and Marilyn is a blue-eyed blond) expect great academic achievements and impressive careers from all three of their children, but Lydia is the one they most directly, and most often, pressure to live up to those expectations. Marilyn, in fact, because she is unhappy with the general course of her own life, rides her daughter particularly hard, even to spending hours each evening working with her on schoolwork. Lydia’s father, on the other hand, works hard – often to the point of overdoing it – to ensure that his daughter’s high school years are not as friendless as his own were.
Everything I Never Told You is, at first glance, a mystery about the disappearance of a teen-aged girl - and it is that. But it is so much more. Ng’s novel is a detailed portrayal of a mixed-race family dealing with the difficulties faced by mix-raced children across the country in the 1960s. Because the family is an ambitious one, the Lees own a home in the best neighborhood they can possibly afford. All well and good, but that choice all but ensures that the Lee children will be the only “Chinese” students in their schools, and that they will be made to feel different every day of their lives.
James and Marilyn only partially sense what their children are going through, the social isolation and subtle prejudice they are silently enduring. They sincerely believe that they understand their children, but they fail to see that their only son, a brilliant high school senior, resents that the family’s attention focuses so exclusively on Lydia. They equally fail to see that Lydia is sick of that very attention, or that Hannah, the youngest child, is being allowed to live in the background almost as if she were not even there.
The Lee children say and do all of the right things, the things their parents expect, but Marilyn and James will come to regret “everything their children never told them.” But by then it will be too late – for all of them.
Bottom Line: This is a very fine debut novel that gives the reader a lot to think about.