By Celeste Ng – In a perceptive Glimmer Train essay, summarized here, Celeste Ng talked about “comfortable ambiguity,” and how in her debut novel, she tried to give readers space to enter the world of the story and enough clues to come to their own conclusions about the fates of the characters. Since so many of her early readers had strong—and differing—opinions about what those fates were, her efforts were clearly successful.
The story centers around a family living in a small town outside Cleveland in the 1970s: honey-blonde Marilyn, the mother, estranged from her own mother, her would-be career, and the future she thought she would have; James, her Chinese husband in an era and a place where being Asian made him—at least in his mind—the perpetual outsider; and their three black-haired children, the only Asian-Americans in their school. Hannah, the acutely observant youngest, Nathan, the oldest, on his way to Harvard, and in the middle, Lydia—serious, responsible Lydia—her parents’ favorite. Their hopes are pinned on her.
New York Times reviewer Alexander Chee calls the story “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.” What went wrong? And something did go drastically wrong, as we learn in the book’s first irrevocable sentences: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”
The narrative moves from present to past in exploring these five lives and the different social forces and character traits that propelled them to where they are, one dead. Something they all have in common is secrets. Before Lydia is a year old, Marilyn notices her uncanny ability to keep secrets. In the aftermath of the disappearance, a desperate Marilyn pulls down from the bookcase the dozen diaries she’s given her to see what clues they may hide. She jams the flimsy locks open. Every page is blank.
As the story’s point of view shifts among family members, and each tries to piece together what happened to Lydia and why, the secrets, the alienation, and the deceptions in their own lives emerge. Even so, little is shared among them. Each must come to an understanding of Lydia’s tragedy in a unique, highly personal, and for some, devastating way. For the reader, the great pleasure of this novel is its uncluttered style. It easily draws you into deeper and deeper waters until you realize the surface is far above you.
Everything I Never Told You was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and named a “best book of the year” by many reviewers.