“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.” These opening lines to Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You is the secret only the reader and narrator know. The characters in the story do not know it. So, what happened to Lydia? As we enter this mystery, we likewise learn of the tenuous threads holding the family together.
Lydia is the middle child daughter of blonde Marilyn and Chinese-American James. She is the most “American looking,” the apple of her father’s eye, and her mother’s favorite child. To her parents, she seems to be popular and doing well in school. She is a responsible, perfect child. So, what happened to Lydia?
To help answer this question, the narrator transports the reader back to the 1960’s, when Marilyn and James met at Harvard – he a young graduate student teaching a course that Marilyn took. Their love affair seemed to erase their insecurities – his for being Chinese American, hers for being doomed to being a homemaker like her mother. When Marilyn becomes pregnant with Nath, she leaves Harvard and her medical-school aspirations, to marry James and start a family together.
Lydia is burdened with her parent’s hopes and dreams. Marilyn realizes that she has become the homemaker like her mother, so she passes on her medical school ambitions (and pressures) to Lydia. It shocks Marilyn to learn that Lydia struggles in Physics. James only wants to fit in and be accepted, so it is a blow to him to find out Lydia is not popular (she would fake phone conversations to supposed friends just to please him) and in fact is a loner. We can feel the weight inflicted on Lydia – all the pretense of keeping up appearances and the pressure to please and redeem her parents.
This is a human tale of parents hoisting the responsibility of redeeming failures and insecurities on their children. However, I think it is an American and maybe more specifically an Asian-American story of fitting in and succeeding in the American Dream.
Ng’s writing is so beautifully economical. Her crisp, pointed prose that says so much in so few words astounded me throughout the book. The non-emotional, matter-of-fact narration had an unusually emotional effect, and I frequently asked myself: “wow, how does she do that?”
Find out what happened to Lydia by watching Bryan on WZZM Channel 13’s “My West Michigan” morning show at 9:00 a.m. on Monday, November 2. Join The Book Nook’s monthly book club at 6:00 p.m., Monday, November 2 for a discussion of Everything I Never Told You at the Book Nook & Java Shop in downtown Montague with refreshments, snacks, beverages, and camaraderie; of course, everyone is welcome, and the Club meets the first Monday monthly all year long.