Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, is CBC’s second novel in our “Coven Reads” series. Ng’s debut novel has received a significant amount of attention since its publication in 2014. It’s a New York Times bestseller and has received both the 2015 Alex award and the 2014/2015 Asian/Pacific American award for literature in adult fiction. Here’s a short summary of the plot (courtesy of Goodreads):
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins this debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.
When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart.
Our discussion veers away from our usual commitment to providing spoiler free commentary, so those who haven’t read the book may want to revisit this conversation later, as we do reveal some of the pivotal plot points in the text. Those who have already read the book, read on and give us your take in the comments!
Maria: I just want to take a minute to thank you ladies for participating in this discussion with me. I first heard about Everything I Never Told You on Roxane Gay’s twitter, where she spoke very highly of it. I dutifully put it on my Goodreads “to read” list and then I came across a copy in the used bookstore near my house this spring. It seemed like fate. I couldn’t put it down, and then when I finished it, I was dying to discuss it with someone, but no one I knew had read it. And now you all have.
What was your first response/reaction when you finished the novel?
Maria: The revelation about Lydia’s death made me feel like I had been sucker punched in the gut. By the end of the novel, I assumed her death was a suicide, and found it heartbreaking. But then, when it’s revealed as an accident, a naive mistake, my heart broke again-even though I didn’t think it could. I didn’t find it disappointing though. Was it heartbreaking? Yes. But it came at a surprise at a point in the novel where I didn’t think there would be any more surprises. Ng continually challenges the ideas we form about the characters, and I love that. Lydia’s death demonstrated that I didn’t understand her the way I thought I did. And part of what makes that final scene with Lydia at the dock so tragic is that we, as readers, learn something about her final minutes that her family will never know- that her life ended, not on a note of despair as everyone expected, but with hope.
Allison: My literal first thought was, “Do Nath and Jack get together?” It’s strange after all that happens in the last few chapters to be concerned about that, but I was. My second thought was more of a feeling: there was something a little disappointing for me about Lydia’s death being an accident. I’m not sure what to do with that. Perhaps I wanted something more sensational to happen, or for there to be some kind of consequences for her parents’ smothering behavior… I don’t know. Maybe it was that it was just too sad that she decided she wanted to live and didn’t.
Maria: I also found myself wondering if Nath and Jack would get together. Jack’s feelings for Nath were so unexpected, in light of how cruelly Nath had treated him, that I couldn’t help but fixate on their scenes together. For the first half of the novel, I assumed there was a romance between Lydia and Jack (and it seems, many of the Lees thought that there was a mysterious love interest in Lydia’s life), but the real love story is between Nath and Jack. The line that really stuck with me was near the end of the novel after Nath has fought with Jack. The narrator notes that Nath will think of Lydia,
when, one day, he looks at the small bump that will always mar the bridge of Jack’s nose and wants to trace it, gently, with his finger.
There are so many types of transgressive (for the time period) love in the novel: James and Marilyn’s marriage, James’s affair with Louisa, and Jack’s attraction to Nath.
Allison: YES. I love the way Ng shows us so many different kinds of love, even those that would be considered problematic in the seventies and with that the effects of those choices. Some of the most moving moments in the novel, for me, are between James and Marilyn as they fall in love, despite their differences. This is contrasted with the equally poignant moments after Lydia’s death when both are confronted with the possibility that those very differences have been playing a part in all three of their children’s lives and that they’ve turned a blind eye to those struggles. That was perhaps the most interesting part of the novel for me. James and Marilyn’s children are so attuned to the “real” world, but both parents are living under a kind of delusion that they aren’t so deeply affected by race. On Lydia’s part, this is due to her incredible effort to deceive both her parents into believing she’s a different person than she truly is. I think it’s a testament to how narrowly focused James and Marilyn are on Lydia that they don’t notice that Nath is much more open about how he experiences the myriad ways he’s different from his peers. I continue to wonder if one of those differences is that Nath is gay.
Maria: Good point Allison. I think perhaps that’s something that Nath hasn’t figured out for himself yet, but does in the future? (depending on how you read the quote I included above)
Alyssa: I also wondered if Jack and Nath would get together, and I wasn’t that surprised by Jack’s feelings for Nath. I started thinking that maybe he had feelings for Nath after that scene at the swimming pool when he tried to save Nath from total humiliation. Also, when he became friends with Lydia, he kept asking about Nath and really wanted Nath to like him. At first, Jack seemed creepy and the likely suspect for Lydia’s death; but as the book progressed, I felt more sympathy towards him. It was painful to witness Nath’s anger towards Jack (especially since we did not get his POV and he was not to blame for Lydia’s death). I think I prefer this ending: that Lydia’s death wasn’t suicide or murder, but that she was attempting to swim and drowned. Even though her death was extremely tragic, it was a gesture of hope, of overcoming her fears, and demonstrated her will power. It’s sad that when she wanted to live, according to her own desires, she died; but then her family also regained hope at the end of the novel.
The novel begins by telling us that Lydia is dead. What is the effect of this stylistic choice? How did revealing this information right away influence the way you read the novel?
Allison: The whole time I was looking for clues as to why she dies, which I think is the point. Is it a psycho? Does Jack kill her? Does she kill herself? At one point, I actually wondered if Louisa might have killed her, which only proves that I watch too many crime dramas. It’s never the obvious suspects.
Maria: When I first read Alexander Chee’s New York Times review, I disagreed with his characterization of the novel as a “literary thriller.” It didn’t feel like I was reading a thriller- I didn’t have that rush of adrenaline that prompted me to power through hundreds of pages really quickly. The prose was too beautiful and complex to skim, and the pacing was slower than I would expect from that genre. However, I realized I was doing exactly what you describe, Allison- trying to solve the mystery of how Lydia died. I definitely thought Jack might have killed her because of his skittish behavior, and then I was convinced she had killed herself. But I think that there are actually 2 mysteries at the heart of the novel: how Lydia died and how the Lee family became so dysfunctional, and ultimately I found the latter a bit more compelling, perhaps because it’s what leads to Lydia’s death.
Allison: Yes, that’s what was most interesting for me, and what’s stuck with me. To be honest, when I finished the book I was glad to be done with it. Its darkness was leaking into my consciousness in a way that bothered me, but it’s stuck with me for weeks. I find myself thinking about it all the time, and what I think about is how angry I was at James and Marilyn for forcing their desires onto their children. I felt Lydia’s desperation so acutely. That sense of being trapped haunts me. So maybe that’s what bothers me a little about the way she died. Aside from the fact that there’s a part of me that’s glad that she didn’t kill herself and that she wasn’t horribly murdered, I have this agitating feeling that if she hadn’t died, she might have killed herself eventually. Because I think it’s her death that spurred the changes and the realization that Marilyn and James have about their marriage and their children. I wonder how they would have reacted to Lydia simply saying no to it all and I wonder if she would have been able to hold her ground against them. I guess part of the point (and my deep sadness) is that we’ll never know.
Alyssa: Maria, I like what you said about there being two mysteries at the heart of this novel. Like both of you, I first read this novel as more of a literary thriller and wanted to figure out how Lydia died. Suicide, murder or accident? But I became more interested in understanding Lydia’s family in relation to her death.This novel seemed less like a murder mystery and more focused on social issues and their struggles with racism, misunderstandings, etc. It became more of an attempt to understand Lydia’s death as either suicide or accident rather than as murder (even though murder was still a possibility). I guess racism could have played a major role in Lydia’s death if she had been murdered, but I think if she had been murdered, the book would have seemed jarring and forced. Like the author was trying to shock us rather than depict a tragic family situation.
Allison: That’s an excellent point! I too approached the novel like a literary thriller, akin to Gone Girl, and it wasn’t that at all.
The narrative doesn’t unfold in chronological order- instead it moves backwards and forwards in time, and regularly switches point of view (between the different characters). What did you think of the way the plot unfolded?
Maria: I loved the structure of the narrative- it felt as though it was ebbing and flowing, seamlessly moving backwards and forwards like waves, which is appropriate because the lake plays such an important role in the novel. Every once in awhile, I did have to reread a section to catch the shifts in perspective, but it was nothing like the multiple narrators in White is for Witching. It seemed like each of the Lee family members received equal narrative attention, which I also loved because it allowed me to understand the family dynamic.
Allison: I thought the non-linear narrative was really effective in revealing the mystery of Lydia’s death piece by piece. I think what struck me most about this aspect of the text was how carefully crafted it was. Ng is a master storyteller. As a writer, I see what kind of devotion (and skill) it would take to tell a story this way and I found it really impressive.
Alyssa: Normally I wouldn’t like a book that switches POV so much, even sometimes in the same paragraph; but this is such a beautifully written book that I loved the multiple narrators and it’s not difficult to understand, like White is for Witching. I also liked that the narrators are given equal attention and that the narrative is non-linear.
The book is filled with a fascinating set of characters. Who is your favorite character and why?
Maria: I actually loved all the characters (except maybe Louisa I guess, but she’s a minor character). I felt equally for each one, which made it tough when their actions hurt each other.
Allison: Hands down, Hanna. I felt so deeply for Lydia and Nath, but I loved Hanna. Primarily because she is so unloved and unnoticed, I think I felt it was almost my responsibility to care for her. I think that Ng’s real ability as an author is showcased in the moments where we see into Hanna’s world. Her little thefts beg to be noticed and every moment she hides underneath a piece of furniture or silently wishes to be seen, my heart just ached with love for her. I wanted to scoop her up and sit her in my kitchen and make her talk and talk.
Alyssa: I don’t have a favorite character. I felt compassion and frustration towards all of the major characters. They were all pretty equally relatable too.
Alternatively, what character frustrated you the most? Why?
Maria: Marilyn frustrated me the most. The way she abandoned her family, the pressure she placed on Lydia, her refusal to see what was right in front of her all got under my skin. But, at the same time, I felt so much sympathy for her. Her desire to become a doctor, to have a career, to avoid her mother’s fate, the way she felt trapped by her family—these were all very moving. She reminded me of April Wheeler in Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, who is brilliant and talented, but trapped by the constraints of family life, and the inadequacy of birth control.
Allison: I was equally frustrated with Marilyn and James, though I felt deep sympathy for them both. I sympathized with their struggles to fit into the rigid expectations of 1960s-70s America, but at the same time, it broke my heart to see how that played out with their children. Obviously, it’s their actions that ultimately lead to Lydia’s death. The tragedy of their child’s death is compounded by the fact that their extremely legitimate experiences lead them to parent their children in such a way that lead to so much unhappiness. The fact is that we’re all like the Lees in some ways, repurposing the grief of our lives and turning it on others, at some point or another. I think that’s what’s so beautiful about the book. It’s difficult not to care for the Lees, because they are making the kinds of mistakes we all make in life, the little mistakes that happen over and over, that sometimes lead to tragedy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say “We’re all the Lees in some way,” because we’re not. What I would say is that the depth of their humanity is easy to relate to.
Alyssa: Marilyn frustrated me the most, but all of the characters frustrated me. This did not prevent me from loving the book though!
What scenes in particular made an impact on you, or stayed with you?
Allison: More than any other, the scene where Lydia rips their father’s locket off her sister Hanna stuck with me. The pure anger about what the locket represents was intensely relatable.
Maria: There were so many memorable moments in the novel it’s hard to choose. But the scene where Hannah describes noticing when a drop of lake water fell from Nath’s body and landed on Jack’s hand, and then Jack quietly licks it off his hand really stayed with me. Jack’s feelings for Nath came as a total surprise to me, which might be why I love that scene so much. It was so subtle, but it was also so revealing; about Jack’s feelings for Nath, and about Hannah’s keen observation skills.
Alyssa: The scene Allison describes really stuck with me too. The book is so rich with memorable scenes though.
Would you recommend this book to others? Why or why not?
Maria: I would absolutely recommend this book to others, with the caveat that it is a sad read. I’ve already recommended it to some of my friends, including Allison.
Allison: Yes, completely. I’d recommend this book to just about anyone.
Alyssa: Yes, definitely. Now I understand why it’s been a bestseller and received such high-praise.