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“If we know this story, we haven’t seen it yet in American fiction, not until now. . . . Deep, heartfelt.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.
With its alluring title and breathtaking first two sentences, I found myself being pulled in to a world where a family is ruined by silence and undone by the ultimate tragedy.
Ng effortlessly weaves together both the past and present of five people who are essentially strangers to one another despite being of the same family. Husband and wife, James and Marilyn, are a kind of anomaly in their town being an inter-racial couple. James who’s Chinese wants nothing more than for his children to blend in. Marilyn who was raised by a mother with traditional views of how a woman should be, has always wanted to stand out. Their most intimate thoughts remain unspoken and they make no mention of their past. And thus they’ve created an environment where everything is shrouded in heavy silence. The children comply docilely, internalizing their own feelings.
Silence is the theme of this book. No one talks…or listens. Children are burdened by their parents’ unmentioned failures and unrealized dreams. It’s eerie how in spite of the fact that each kid is so withdrawn, they are keenly observant of the other, noticing little details that escape their parents. Everyone grows further apart as James and Marilyn continue to believe in the fantasy they’ve created in their heads. Lydia was the linchpin of the family with the weight of her parents’ ambitions on her. With Lydia’s shocking death, their delicate family dynamics come apart, revealing each one’s fragility.
I was enthralled by how seamlessly Ng connected one person’s backstory to the next person’s perspective. The best way I can describe it is it felt like I was watching things unfold in real time. I don’t think I’ve come across this writing style before and the effect is astounding. Even now, a few days after I’ve finished it, I still find myself caught up in the emotional upheaval. It’s an expertly written novel that delves deep into that space of denial and insecurity that the characters are afraid to admit to. I ma certain that this will make it to my Top Ten of the year.