It finally happened. My book group picked a book that made me want to ugly-cry. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You hit me hard. Everything I Never Told You, set in Ohio in the late 1970s, gave me a ringside view of a family that has a hard time being honest about the emotional hurts they inflict on each other. The title is a refrain that runs through the whole book. Every member of the Lee family is holding back from each other. We’re left to puzzle why. Instead, Ng tells us exactly what they’re holding back from each other. This is the kind of book that will have you thinking about your own family, about all the things you’d wished you’d said to your family members.
Near the beginning of the novel, after the oldest Lee daughter’s body has been found in a nearby lake, there is a question and an explanation of what happened to Lydia Lee:
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 long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible. (25*)
Lydia was the daughter both her parents had counted on to be what they could never be. Ng’s narrative takes us back and forth in time, to show us how Marilyn and James became the people they are. Lydia’s father, James, a Chinese American, had always been made to feel different. He didn’t have friends. James’ daughter inherited his long black hair, but not his epicanthic fold. She could pass for White. Lydia’s mother saw her eldest daughter as another chance to be a doctor. Marilyn’s goal had always been to be a doctor. Getting pregnant, then married, derailed her. For most of Lydia’s too-short life, both parents had pressured her to be what they hadn’t been: popular, pioneering, perfect. Whenever I read a book like Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, I invariably think of Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse.” Larkin wrote:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
Until Lydia went missing, James and Marilyn had no clue that anything was wrong. Lydia never told them. Lydia’s siblings, however, have a little better idea of how lonely and unhappy Lydia was. When the police arrive after Lydia’s disappearance, cracks appear in the parental Lees’ vision of their daughter. Lydia’s “friends” turn out not to have talked to her for months. Lydia had been pretending to have conversations with them on the phone. She was failing physics. All Lydia’s diaries were blank.
Without Lydia, without her facade of filial perfection, the Lee family comes unglued. Still, they can’t bring themselves to say what they need to say to each other. They rip each other to shreds with the things they say. The words they snarl and shout at each other hit psychological sore spots that have been festering for years.
One might think that Everything I Never Told You was building to a painful but necessary catharsis. This is not that kind of book. It’s more honest than that. It’s also more frustrating than that. While we, the readers, are privy to the whole story (for the most part), the question of why the family can’t speak fully and truthfully with each other remains for us to puzzle over. I have met many people (and am related to several) that deal with things by emphatically not dealing with them. They let the hurts scab over. They lie in their psyche, waiting to be prodded by unkind words in the future. But they can function, mostly. It’s easier to leave the scabs alone, because saying what they want to say will hurt other people. Or it will make them examine their own failings too closely and they’ll hurt themselves. Though they never admit it in so many words, I can see the Lees constantly shying away from both of these scenarios.
As for the ending and how the family copes (or fails to cope) with Lydia’s death, I have theories. The ending of the novel is ambiguous about the Lee family’s relationships. Do they finally learn to be honest? My first theory about what happens to the Lees is that, because they have spent so many years not opening up to each other, it’s easier for them to move on from their daughter’s death and the hurts they inflicted on each other by never talking about these things again. The second is that the real catharsis and forgiveness the family needs is off in their future, that Everything I Never Told You is just an episode in their lives. No doubt there are other explanations, but I suspect my first theory might be the closest to the truth. If the second theory is more correct, then the real healing is waiting for Lees, when they’re strong enough to peel off the scabs and finally say all the thing they’re holding back. How one resolves the ambiguity, I suppose, depends on how optimistic one is.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Prescribe this book to readers who need to be reminded of the cost of letting psychological wounds fester. Honesty hurts, but only for a little while. Unexamined pain can last a lifetime.
* Quote is from the 2014 Kindle edition by Penguin Random House. Page numbers are approximate.