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.
The ‘they’ in question are Lydia’s parents, Marilyn and James and her siblings, older brother, Nath and younger sister, Hannah.
Their mother steps back into the kitchen, and for one glorious fraction of a second Nath sighs with relief: there she is, Lydia, safe and sound. It happens sometimes – their faces are so alike you’d see one in the corner of your eye and mistake her for the other: the same elfish chin and high cheekbones and left-cheek dimple, the same thin-shouldered build. Only the hair color is different, Lydia’s ink-black instead of their mother’s honey-blond. He and Hannah take after their father – once a woman stopped the two of them in the grocery store and asked, “Chinese?” and when they said yes, not wanting to get into halves and wholes, she’d nodded sagely. “I knew it,’ she said. “By the eyes.” She’d tugged the corner of each eye outward with a fingertip. But Lydia, defying genetics, somehow has her mother’s blue eyes, and they know this is one more reason she is their mother’s favorite. And their father’s too.
In 1977, a mixed heritage family is not a common sight; how James and Marilyn met and how they’ve negotiated life as a couple forms a significant part of the novel. Marilyn had wanted to defy her mother’s expectations. She went to university set on being a doctor; she defied the expectations of the male professors and her male classmates by continually coming top of her class, and then she met James Lee and fulfilled her mother’s expectations by becoming pregnant and getting married.
James Lee’s father had come to California from China under the name of his neighbour’s son. His father got a job doing maintenance at Lloyd Academy, Iowa. James passed the entrance exam and became ‘…the first Oriental boy to attend Lloyd’. There, he learnt that he was different.
When Marilyn’s mother meets James on the day before the wedding, she asks ‘You’re sure…that he doesn’t just want a green card?’ On the day itself, she pulls Marilyn aside before the ceremony and says:
“It’s not right, Marilyn. It’s not right.” Leaving it unnamed hanging in the air between them.
Marilyn pretended not to hear and took her lipstick from her purse.
“You’ll change your mind,” her mother said. “You’ll regret it later.”
Marilyn swivelled up the tube and bent close to the mirror, and her mother grabbed her by both shoulders suddenly, desperately. The look in her eyes was fear, as if Marilyn were running along the edge of a cliff.
“Think about your children,” she said. “Where will you live? You won’t fit in anywhere. You’ll be sorry for the rest of your life.”
It’s clear early in the novel that things haven’t gone smoothly for James and Marilyn. A disappearance is alluded to, it seems as though Marilyn left for a period of time some years earlier, and Lydia’s death will test their marriage even further.
The other half of the novel explores Lydia’s character.
Long ago, when Lydia was a baby, Marilyn had once left her in the living room, playing on a quilt, and went into the kitchen for a cup of tea. She had been only eleven months old. Marilyn took the kettle off the stove and turned to find Lydia standing in the doorway…Marilyn didn’t think about missing those first steps, or how grown up her daughter had become. The thought that flashed through her mind wasn’t How did I miss it? but What else have you been hiding?
Lydia, it seems, has been hiding a lot, like what’s her relationship with Jack Wolff, the boy from down the road who since his father left and mother works late shifts at the hospital runs wild? Why don’t any of the girls her father think she’s friends with spend time with her? And why’s she so upset about Nath’s impending move to attend Harvard?
Everything I Never Told You is a very good novel. The structure – moving between Marilyn and James’ past and the investigation into Lydia’s death – makes the narrative compelling. The theme of relationships – marital and familial – feel fresh when seen through a filter of mixed heritage. Ng considers what makes those stories of American families, of the sort that Jonathan Franzen or Meg Wolitzer might write, different if those families aren’t white. And Lydia, well, she’s fascinating. Some of her behaviour places her in the ‘typical teenager’ category and some of it very much does not. Her story, her motivation, her decisions are interesting and ultimately, heart-breaking.
Last week, Amazon declared Everything I Never Told You their Book of the Year. In terms of a book that’s thoughtful, well written, explores familiar themes in new ways and will hold wide appeal, they probably couldn’t have made a better choice.
Photograph by Kevin Day
I’m delighted to welcome Celeste Ng to the blog to talk more about Everything I Never Told You.
In the first sentence of your book, you reveal that Lydia is dead. Why did you choose to write about a tragedy? And why did you reveal that so early on?
In the early drafts of the novel, neither Lydia’s family nor the readers knew what had happened to her until several chapters in. But that misdirected readers a bit—it put the focus on whether Lydia was alive or dead, whereas the real question driving the novel is “How did this family get to this place?” A writer friend suggested revealing Lydia’s death in the first chapter, and I ultimately decided to put it in the very first sentence, for a few reasons. First, I didn’t want to pull any punches. The first sentence sets the tone of the novel, and in a novel that’s very much about secrets, it felt important to let the reader in on at least the basics, right away. And second, after the first two sentences, you immediately know more than the family does—that’s true throughout the novel, actually—and as a result, you see everything from a different perspective. When the policeman says, “Missing girls almost always come home,” you feel an little extra gut-punch, because you (unlike the family) know that Lydia won’t.
Was the setting, America in the 1970’s, integral to the story, the family, the death?
Absolutely. As I struggled to write the first draft, a well-meaning advisor suggested setting the novel in the 1990s—the era in which was a teenager, and where I wouldn’t have to do as much research. I tried it, but the story lost some of its resonance. Issues of race and gender are still very much with us in the States—as news over the past few months has shown—but all of the issues the Lees were struggling with were particularly highlighted in the 1960s and 1970s. Marilyn’s thwarted desire to become a doctor, for example, was a fairly common experience for many women of her era, but thankfully much less so as time has passed. (A little behind-the-scenes tidbit: all the doctors in the novel are actually named after friends of mine who are women doctors!) Similarly, interracial marriage has become more and more common and accepted over the decades, but James and Marilyn’s marriage would have been quite startling in the 1960s.
I hadn’t thought much about the American-ness of the setting before—perhaps that’s typical of us Americans, assuming the world revolves around us! But actually, yes, I don’t think this story would have happened in quite the same way anywhere else. Race and cultural conflict can and do happen anywhere, of course—but in the States we have such an ingrained image of ourselves as a melting pot that it sometimes blinds us to those tensions. Often it feels like we’d rather deny they exist than confront them, and that’s very much what the Lee family does. That said, though, the experience of being of mixed cultures in other countries is something I’d love to see explored more in literature.
The novel is set in the past and present, between children and parents. What led you to structure the novel in that way?
I’m so glad you asked this, because the structure of the novel was something I labored greatly over. I went through four drafts of this book, and the story itself stayed essentially the same—it was the structure, how to tell that story, that took the most time to figure out. This is a story about how the past reverberates into the present, and how the present is shaped by echoes from the past. It’s also a story about the differences between generations, and how parents and children struggle to understand one another. So the novel always had multiple strands, past and present, parents and children, and ultimately I ended up alternating the two to show how they intertwined and overlapped. I’m most interested in how past and present intersect, the eye of the Venn diagram, and a book told in sections, for example—Part 1: The Past; Part 2: The Present—wouldn’t have shown that as directly.
Did you use your own experience of growing up in a Chinese-American family to write the book?
Somewhat, yes. I grew up in areas where there were very few other Asians, similar to the family in the novel It’s quite a bizarre experience, looking very different from everyone else around you; it can make you very aware of being an outsider. While I was fortunate and had a much more positive experience than the Lee family, I certainly was aware that I and my family didn’t look like—or have the same background as—everyone else. And while it wasn’t the norm, while growing up I certainly had many encounters where people felt the need to comment on how different I was, or to outright harass me. With one exception, every one of the moments of cultural aggression in the novel is based on something that’s happened to me or something I know.
What’s the best piece of advice you received while writing the book?
I have a few pieces of advice that I wrote on sheets of paper and taped above my desk. One is a well-known quote from E. L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Another is something a friend, the novelist Preeta Samarasan, said to me when I bemoaned my lack of progress—“It pretty much feels impossible until you’re done”—which I suppose is another way of saying the same thing: just keep inching along.
And then there was a motivational sign a friend made me, which I still use as my writing mantra: WORRY ABOUT THAT LATER. It’s all too easy, while writing a draft, to get caught up in the details, berating yourself over sketchy characterization or plot holes or awkward sentences. And yes, those are things that need fixing—but you can’t get stuck obsessing over one particular scene or sentence for too long. A novel needs persistence and momentum, and after a certain point the going gets easier, like rolling a stone over a mountain. After that, fixing all those little things seem much less impossible.
My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?
Many of my favorite writers happen to be female, actually! This is something I think about a lot. The organization VIDA does an annual count of books reviewed in major publications: how many of the books reviewed are by women vs. men and how many of the reviewers are women vs. men. The results are pretty staggering; the gender gap is even worse than you’d think. As a result, people are starting to pay more attention to the issue—if slowly. The New York Times does a series called “By The Book,” in which they ask prominent figures (often writers) about their favorite books and what they’re currently reading, and surprisingly often, male interviewees will mention 30 or 40 different authors, not one of whom is a woman. I find that astounding, as at least half of my favorite writers are women—do they not like any books by women, or are they simply not reading books by women at all?
Anyway, to answer your actual question: Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things is one of my favorite books of all time; I re-read it in whole or in part every year. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Beloved are similar favorites. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a book I read for pleasure and for writerly inspiration, and I adore most everything Ann Patchett writes, though Bel Canto and her long essay “The Getaway Car” are standout favorites. Most of the formative books of my childhood were also by women: Laura Ingalls Wilder; Frances Hodgson Burnett; E. Nesbit; Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy). And of course there’s J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series—yes, I’m a Potterphile; don’t laugh!—though I was already an adult when they came out.
What’s next for you?
I’m just starting on another novel, which will be set in my hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland and a place I miss. It was a lovely place to grow up—very racially integrated, excellent schools, beautiful houses and trees everywhere—but the flip side is there’s a bit of fixation on perfection and appearance. It’s a whole new challenge writing a book with a real-life setting, but a fun one.
Thanks to Celeste Ng for such great answers and to Blackfriar’s Books/Little Brown for the review copy.