Everything I Never Told You: A Novel [NOOK Book]


Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. 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 ...
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Everything I Never Told You: A Novel

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Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. 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. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened.

A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
★ 05/01/2014
Ng's debut is one of those aching stories about which the reader knows so much more than any of the characters, even as each yearns for the unknowable truth. "Lydia is dead," the novel opens—blunt, unnerving, devastating. She's only 16, the middle of three children of James and Marilyn Lee, a mixed-race couple married years before the ironically named Loving v. Virginia finally invalidated U.S. antimiscegenation laws in 1967. They're initially drawn together by their differences: James, the American-born son of Chinese immigrants, finishing his Harvard PhD; Marilyn, the only Radcliffe undergraduate determined to become a doctor, a gifted scientist among unbelieving men. When they bury their daughter in 1977, the Lee family—already fragile before the tragedy—implodes. James detaches, Marilyn seeks refuge, brother Nath blames, and youngest Hannah silently watches all. Each will search for a Lydia who doesn't exist, desperate to parse what happened. VERDICT Ng constructs a mesmerizing narrative that shrinks enormous issues of race, prejudice, identity, and gender into the miniaturist dynamics of a single family. A breathtaking triumph, reminiscent of prophetic debuts by Ha Jin, Chang-rae Lee, and Chimamanda Adichie, whose first titles matured into spectacular, continuing literary legacies. [See Prepub Alert, 12/16/13.]—Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC
The New York Times Book Review - Alexander Chee
…a literary thriller that begins with some stock elements: a missing girl, a lake, a local bad boy who was one of the last to see her and won't say what he knows…a quiet all-American town in Ohio, where everyone knows one another and nothing like this has ever happened before. This is familiar territory, but Ng returns to it to spin an unfamiliar tale, with a very different kind of girl from the ones we've been asked to follow before. If we know this story, we haven't seen it yet in American fiction, not until now…Ng has structured Everything I Never Told You so we shift between the family's theories and Lydia's own story, and what led to her disappearance and death, moving toward the final, devastating conclusion. What emerges is 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. This is, in the end, a novel about the burden of being the first of your kind—a burden you do not always survive.
Publishers Weekly
★ 04/14/2014
This emotionally involving debut novel explores themes of belonging using the story of the death of a teenage girl, Lydia, from a mixed-race family in 1970s Ohio. Lydia is the middle and favorite child of Marilyn Walker, a white Virginian, and James Lee, a first-generation Chinese-American. Marilyn and James meet in 1957, when she is a premed at Radcliffe and he, a graduate student, is teaching one of her classes. The two fall in love and marry, over the objections of Marilyn’s mother, whose comment on their interracial relationship is succinct: “It’s not right.” Marilyn gets pregnant and gives up her dream of becoming a doctor, devoting her life instead to raising Lydia and the couple’s other two children, Nathan and Hannah. Then Marilyn abruptly moves out of their suburban Ohio home to go back to school, only to return before long. When Lydia is discovered dead in a nearby lake, the family begins to fall apart. As the police try to decipher the mystery of Lydia’s death, her family realize that they didn’t know her at all. Lydia is remarkably imagined, her unhappy teenage life crafted without an ounce of cliché. Ng’s prose is precise and sensitive, her characters richly drawn. Agent: Julie Barer, Barer Literary. (July)
Entertainment Weekly - Sara Vilkomerson
When Lydia Lee, the favored daughter in a mixed-race family in '70s Ohio, turns up dead, the Lees' delicate ecosystem is destroyed. Her parents' marriage unravels, her brother is consumed by vengeance, and her sister—always an afterthought—hovers nervously, knowing more than anyone realizes. Ng skillfully gathers each thread of the tragedy, uncovering secrets and revealing poignant answers. Grade: A-.
Boston Globe
Wonderfully moving…Emotionally precise…A beautifully crafted study of dysfunction and grief…[The book] will resonate with anyone who has ever had a family drama.
MORE magazine
With the skill of a veteran heart surgeon…Ng writes of maternal expectations, ingrained prejudice and sibling conflict in a culture that has just begun to grapple with interracial marriage and shifting gender roles.
[A] haunting debut…Ng is a gifted storyteller but an even more gifted character-builder…A powerful book about how those left behind must learn to go on living.
Kirkus Reviews
Ng's nuanced debut novel begins with the death of a teenage girl and then uses the mysterious circumstances of her drowning as a springboard to dive into the troubled waters beneath the calm surface of her Chinese-American family.When 16-year-old Lydia Lee fails to show up at breakfast one spring morning in 1977, and her body is later dragged from the lake in the Ohio college town where she and her biracial family don't quite fit in, her parents—blonde homemaker Marilyn and Chinese-American history professor James—older brother and younger sister get swept into the churning emotional conflicts and currents they've long sought to evade. What, or who, compelled Lydia—a promising student who could often be heard chatting happily on the phone; was doted on by her parents; and enjoyed an especially close relationship with her Harvard-bound brother, Nath—to slip away from home and venture out in a rowboat late at night when she had always been deathly afraid of water, refusing to learn to swim? The surprising answers lie deep beneath the surface, and Ng, whose stories have won awards including the Pushcart Prize, keeps an admirable grip on the narrative's many strands as she expertly explores and exposes the Lee family's secrets: the dreams that have given way to disappointment; the unspoken insecurities, betrayals and yearnings; the myriad ways the Lees have failed to understand one another and, perhaps, themselves. These long-hidden, quietly explosive truths, weighted by issues of race and gender, slowly bubble to the surface of Ng's sensitive, absorbing novel and reverberate long after its final page.Ng's emotionally complex debut novel sucks you in like a strong current and holds you fast until its final secrets surface.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781101634615
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 6/26/2014
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 460
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

Celeste Ng grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a family of scientists. She attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan), where she won the Hopwood Award. Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, the Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere, and she is the recipient of the Pushcart Prize. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and son.
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Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2014 Celeste Ng


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. As always, next to her cereal bowl, her mother has placed a sharpened pencil and Lydia’s physics homework, six problems flagged with small ticks. Driving to work, Lydia’s father nudges the dial toward WXKP, Northwest Ohio’s Best News Source, vexed by the crackles of static. On the stairs, Lydia’s brother yawns, still twined in the tail end of his dream. And in her chair in the corner of the kitchen, Lydia’s sister hunches moon-eyed over her cornflakes, sucking them to pieces one by one, waiting for Lydia to appear. It’s she who says, at last, “Lydia’s taking a long time today.”

Upstairs, Marilyn opens her daughter’s door and sees the bed unslept in: neat hospital corners still pleated beneath the comforter, pillow still fluffed and convex. Nothing seems out of place. Mustard-colored corduroys tangled on the floor, a single rainbow-striped sock. A row of science fair ribbons on the wall, a postcard of Einstein. Lydia’s duffel bag crumpled on the floor of the closet. Lydia’s green bookbag slouched against her desk. Lydia’s bottle of Baby Soft atop the dresser, a sweet, powdery, loved-baby scent still in the air. But no Lydia.

Marilyn closes her eyes. Maybe, when she opens them, Lydia will be there, covers pulled over her head as usual, wisps of hair trailing from beneath. A grumpy lump bundled under the bedspread that she’d somehow missed before. I was in the bathroom, Mom. I went downstairs for some water. I was lying right here all the time. Of course, when she looks, nothing has changed. The closed curtains glow like a blank television screen.

Downstairs, she stops in the doorway of the kitchen, a hand on each side of the frame. Her silence says everything. “I’ll check outside,” she says at last. “Maybe for some reason—” She keeps her gaze trained on the floor as she heads for the front door, as if Lydia’s footprints might be crushed into the hall runner.

Nath says to Hannah, “She was in her room last night. I heard her radio playing. At eleven thirty.” He stops, remembering that he had not said goodnight.

“Can you be kidnapped if you’re sixteen?” Hannah asks. Nath prods at his bowl with a spoon. Cornflakes wilt and sink into clouded milk.

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.

Then Lydia raises one hand to her brow and becomes his mother again.

“The car’s still here,” she says, but Nath had known it would be. Lydia can’t drive; she doesn’t even have a learner’s permit yet. Last week she’d surprised them all by failing the exam, and their father wouldn’t even let her sit in the driver’s seat without it. Nath stirs his cereal, which has turned to sludge at the bottom of his bowl. The clock in the front hall ticks, then strikes seven thirty. No one moves.

“Are we still going to school today?” Hannah asks.

Marilyn hesitates. Then she goes to her purse and takes out her keychain with a show of efficiency. “You’ve both missed the bus. Nath, take my car and drop Hannah off on your way.” Then: “Don’t worry. We’ll find out what’s going on.” She doesn’t look at either of them. Neither looks at her.

When the children have gone, she takes a mug from the cupboard, trying to keep her hands still. 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. She had started and set her hand down on the hot burner. A red, spiral welt rose on her palm, and she touched it to her lips and looked at her daughter through watering eyes. Standing there, Lydia was strangely alert, as if she were taking in the kitchen for the first time. 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? Nath had pulled up and wobbled and tipped over and toddled right in front of her, but she didn’t remember Lydia even beginning to stand. Yet she seemed so steady on her bare feet, tiny fingers just peeking from the ruffled sleeve of her romper. Marilyn often had her back turned, opening the refrigerator or turning over the laundry. Lydia could have begun walking weeks ago, while she was bent over a pot, and she would not have known.

She had scooped Lydia up and smoothed her hair and told her how clever she was, how proud her father would be when he came home. But she’d felt as if she’d found a locked door in a familiar room: Lydia, still small enough to cradle, had secrets. Marilyn might feed her and bathe her and coax her legs into pajama pants, but already parts of her life were curtained off. She kissed Lydia’s cheek and pulled her close, trying to warm herself against her daughter’s small body.

Now Marilyn sips tea and remembers that surprise.

The high school’s number is pinned to the corkboard beside the refrigerator, and Marilyn pulls the card down and dials, twisting the cord around her finger while the phone rings.

“Middlewood High,” the secretary says on the fourth ring. “This is Dottie.”

She recalls Dottie: a woman built like a sofa cushion, who still wore her fading red hair in a beehive. “Good morning,” she begins, and falters. “Is my daughter in class this morning?”

Dottie makes a polite cluck of impatience. “To whom am I speaking, please?”

It takes her a moment to remember her own name. “Marilyn. Marilyn Lee. My daughter is Lydia Lee. Tenth grade.”

“Let me look up her schedule. First period—” A pause. “Eleventh-grade physics?”

“Yes, that’s right. With Mr. Kelly.”

“I’ll have someone run down to that classroom and check.” There’s a thud as the secretary sets the receiver down on the desk.

Marilyn studies her mug, the pool of water it has made on the counter. A few years ago, a little girl had crawled into a storage shed and suffocated. After that the police department sent a flyer to every house: If your child is missing, look for him right away. Check washing machines and clothes dryers, automobile trunks, toolsheds, any places he might have crawled to hide. Call police immediately if your child cannot be found.

“Mrs. Lee?” the secretary says. “Your daughter was not in her first-period class. Are you calling to excuse her absence?”

Marilyn hangs up without replying. She replaces the phone number on the board, her damp fingers smudging the ink so that the digits blur as if in a strong wind, or underwater.

She checks every room, opening every closet. She peeks into the empty garage: nothing but an oil spot on the concrete and the faint, heady smell of gasoline. She’s not sure what she’s looking for: Incriminating footprints? A trail of breadcrumbs? When she was twelve, an older girl from her school had disappeared and turned up dead. Ginny Barron. She’d worn saddle shoes that Marilyn had desperately coveted. She’d gone to the store to buy cigarettes for her father, and two days later they found her body by the side of the road, halfway to Charlottesville, strangled and naked.

Now Marilyn’s mind begins to churn. The summer of Son of Sam has just begun—though the papers have only recently begun to call him by that name—and even in Ohio, headlines blare the latest shooting. In a few months, the police will catch David Berkowitz, and the country will focus again on other things: the death of Elvis, the new Atari, Fonzie soaring over a shark. At this moment, though, when dark-haired New Yorkers are buying blond wigs, the world seems to Marilyn a terrifying and random place. Things like that don’t happen here, she reminds herself. Not in Middlewood, which calls itself a city but is really just a tiny college town of three thousand, where driving an hour gets you only to Toledo, where a Saturday night out means the roller rink or the bowling alley or the drive-in, where even Middlewood Lake, at the center of town, is really just a glorified pond. (She is wrong about this last one: it is a thousand feet across, and it is deep.) Still, the small of her back prickles, like beetles marching down her spine.

Inside, Marilyn pulls back the shower curtain, rings screeching against rod, and stares at the white curve of the bathtub. She searches all the cabinets in the kitchen. She looks inside the pantry, the coat closet, the oven. Then she opens the refrigerator and peers inside. Olives. Milk. A pink foam package of chicken, a head of iceberg, a cluster of jade-colored grapes. She touches the cool glass of the peanut butter jar and closes the door, shaking her head. As if Lydia would somehow be inside.

Morning sun fills the house, creamy as lemon chiffon, lighting the insides of cupboards and empty closets and clean, bare floors. Marilyn looks down at her hands, empty too and almost aglow in the sunlight. She lifts the phone and dials her husband’s number.

For James, in his office, it is still just another Tuesday, and he clicks his pen against his teeth. A line of smudgy typing teeters slightly uphill: Serbia was one of the most powerful of the Baltic nations. He crosses out Baltic, writes Balkan, turns the page. Archduke France Ferdinand was assassinated by members of Black Ann. Franz, he thinks. Black Hand. Had these students ever opened their books? He pictures himself at the front of the lecture hall, pointer in hand, the map of Europe unfurled behind him. It’s an intro class, “America and the World Wars”; he doesn’t expect depth of knowledge or critical insight. Just a basic understanding of the facts, and one student who can spell Czechoslovakia correctly.

He closes the paper and writes the score on the front page—sixty-five out of one hundred—and circles it. Every year as summer approaches, the students shuffle and rustle; sparks of resentment sizzle up like flares, then sputter out against the windowless walls of the lecture hall. Their papers grow half hearted, paragraphs trailing off, sometimes midsentence, as if the students could not hold a thought that long. Was it a waste, he wonders. All the lecture notes he’s honed, all the color slides of MacArthur and Truman and the maps of Guadalcanal. Nothing more than funny names to giggle at, the whole course just one more requirement to check off the list before they graduated. What else could he expect from this place? He stacks the paper with the others and drops the pen on top. Through the window he can see the small green quad and three kids in blue jeans tossing a Frisbee.

When he was younger, still junior faculty, James was often mistaken for a student himself. That hasn’t happened in years. He’ll be forty-six next spring; he’s tenured, a few silver hairs now mixed in among the black. Sometimes, though, he’s still mistaken for other things. Once, a receptionist at the provost’s office thought he was a visiting diplomat from Japan and asked him about his flight from Tokyo. He enjoys the surprise on people’s faces when he tells them he’s a professor of American history. “Well, I am American,” he says when people blink, a barb of defensiveness in his tone.

Someone knocks: his teaching assistant, Louisa, with a stack of papers.

“Professor Lee. I didn’t mean to bother you, but your door was open.” She sets the essays on his desk and pauses. “These weren’t very good.”

“No. My half weren’t either. I was hoping you had all the As in your stack.”

Louisa laughs. When he’d first seen her, in his graduate seminar last term, she’d surprised him. From the back she could have been his daughter: they had almost the same hair, hanging dark and glossy down to the shoulder blades, the same way of sitting with elbows pulled in close to the body. When she turned around, though, her face was completely her own, narrow where Lydia’s was wide, her eyes brown and steady. “Professor Lee?” she had said, holding out her hand. “I’m Louisa Chen.” Eighteen years at Middlewood College, he’d thought, and here was the first Oriental student he’d ever had. Without realizing it, he had found himself smiling.

Then, a week later, she came to his office. “Is that your family?” she’d asked, tilting the photo on his desk toward her. There was a pause as she studied it. Everyone did the same thing, and that was why he kept the photo on display. He watched her eyes move from his photographic face to his wife’s, then his children’s, then back again. “Oh,” she said after a moment, and he could tell she was trying to hide her confusion. “Your wife’s—not Chinese?”

It was what everyone said. But from her he had expected something different.

“No,” he said, and straightened the frame so that it faced her a little more squarely, a perfect forty-five degree angle to the front of the desk. “No, she isn’t.”

Still, at the end of the fall semester, he’d asked her to act as a grader for his undergraduate lecture. And in April, he’d asked her to be the teaching assistant for his summer course.

“I hope the summer students will be better,” Louisa says now. “A few people insisted that the Cape-to-Cairo Railroad was in Europe. For college students, they have surprising trouble with geography.”

“Well, this isn’t Harvard, that’s for sure,” James says. He pushes the two piles of essays into one and evens them, like a deck of cards, against the desktop. “Sometimes I wonder if it’s all a waste.”

“You can’t blame yourself if the students don’t try. And they’re not all so bad. A few got As.” Louisa blinks at him, her eyes suddenly serious. “Your life is not a waste.”

James had meant only the intro course, teaching these students who, year after year, didn’t care to learn even the basic timeline. She’s twenty-three, he thinks; she knows nothing about life, wasted or otherwise. But it’s a nice thing to hear.

“Stay still,” he says. “There’s something in your hair.” Her hair is cool and a little damp, not quite dry from her morning shower. Louisa holds quite still, her eyes open and fixed on his face. It’s not a flower petal, as he’d first thought. It’s a ladybug, and as he picks it out, it tiptoes, on threadlike yellow legs, to hang upside down from his fingernail.

“Damn things are everywhere this time of year,” says a voice from the doorway, and James looks up to see Stanley Hewitt leaning through. He doesn’t like Stan—a florid ham hock of a man who talks to him loudly and slowly, as if he’s hard of hearing, who makes stupid jokes that start George Washington, Buffalo Bill, and Spiro Agnew walk into a bar . . .

“Did you want something, Stan?” James asks. He’s acutely conscious of his hand, index finger and thumb outstretched as if pointing a popgun at Louisa’s shoulder, and pulls it back.

“Just wanted to ask a question about the dean’s latest memo,” Stanley says, holding up a mimeographed sheet. “Didn’t mean to interrupt anything.”

“I have to get going anyway,” Louisa says. “Have a nice morning, Professor Lee. I’ll see you tomorrow. You too, Professor Hewitt.” As she slides past Stanley into the hallway, James sees that she’s blushing, and his own face grows hot. When she is gone, Stanley seats himself on the corner of James’s desk.

“Good-looking girl,” he says. “She’ll be your assistant this summer too, no?”

“Yes.” James unfolds his hand as the ladybug moves onto his fingertip, walking the path of his fingerprint, around and around in whorls and loops. He wants to smash his fist into the middle of Stanley’s grin, to feel Stanley’s slightly crooked front tooth slice his knuckles. Instead he smashes the ladybug with his thumb. The shell snaps between his fingers, like a popcorn hull, and the insect crumbles to sulfur-colored powder. Stanley keeps running his finger along the spines of James’s books. Later James will long for the ignorant calm of this moment, for that last second when Stan’s leer was the worst problem on his mind. But for now, when the phone rings, he is so relieved at the interruption that at first he doesn’t hear the anxiety in Marilyn’s voice.

“James?” she says. “Could you come home?”

The police tell them lots of teenagers leave home with no warning. Lots of times, they say, the girls are mad at their parents and the parents don’t even know. Nath watches them circulate in his sister’s room. He expects talcum powder and feather dusters, sniffing dogs, magnifying glasses. Instead the policemen just look: at the posters thumbtacked above her desk, the shoes on the floor, the half-opened bookbag. Then the younger one places his palm on the rounded pink lid of Lydia’s perfume bottle, as if cupping a child’s head in his hand.

Most missing-girl cases, the older policeman tells them, resolve themselves within twenty-four hours. The girls come home by themselves.

“What does that mean?” Nath says. “Most? What does that mean?”

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Interviews & Essays

How I Became a Writer in a Family of Scientists

One of my favorite family photos is of us at the breakfast table: my father bent over a magazine, my mother with a book in one hand and a half-empty bowl of soup noodles before her, me obscured by a paperback, my completely forgotten breakfast grown cold. My sister, home from college, took the picture, amused at how engrossed we all were. Her own half-read book, which she'd set down to pick up the camera, lies facedown beside her plate.

My father was a physicist, a researcher for NASA. He was, literally, a rocket scientist. My mother spent years as a chemist, teaching graduate students and running her own research lab. My sister went to Princeton and became a mechanical engineer.

I, on the other hand, scribbled stories in notebooks. I wrote poems. My sister jokes that my teenage rebellion was to join a Shakespeare club. I chose the most impractical major possible, as far as my father was concerned. English, he said. What do you need a degree in English for? You already speak English! He was only half kidding. Later, when I decided to apply to grad school for creative writing, my worried mother consulted a colleague from the English Department about my job prospects. Afterward, she emailed me to say it was okay, as her friend had assured her an MFA would qualify me to teach "writing and other Artsy Stuff."

How could a writer come out of such a practical, scientific family?

That's easy; as scientists, my family firmly believed in the importance of learning and being curious. This meant we read constantly.

At home, books were everywhere. I had four bookshelves in my room alone. In the basement, bookshelves lined an entire wall. Every now and then my father would buy some pine boards and make another shelf, but there were never enough. They were crammed so full that eventually we resorted to putting them in sideways — this maximized space — and then adding a second layer of books, obscuring the first, so that we had to remember which titles were behind which. And we were always getting more. My parents gave me books as rewards: if I brought home straight A's, I'd get a book of my choice. This was a needless bribe, because I always got straight A's and they bought me books all the time anyway. Whenever we headed to the mall, our first stop was the tiny B. Dalton, no matter what had brought us there. Sometimes we'd stay for an hour or more — my dad in the history section, my mom browsing the mysteries - - each of us slowly accumulating a stack of books that were too interesting to leave behind. When it was time to go, I would present my finds to my parents for approval. We didn't have a lot of money, but I never remember my parents ever saying no to a book or telling me I'd found too many.

I've found that people who don't know much about science assume scientists are obsessed with boring machinations and graphs, interested only in the practical. The opposite is really true. We often think of science as being about fact, about ration and reason and quantification, but it is equally invested in the joys of mystery and discovery: finding out how the world works. That's why my parents loved reading so much, and why they encouraged me to read prolifically and widely. We had books on science, yes, with titles like Lagrangian Dynamics and More Surprises in Theoretical Physics and Consider a Spherical Cow — but we had books on cooking and Chinese history, Dickens classics and word games, collections of Georgia O'Keeffe paintings and guides to making paper airplanes.

Here's an example: as a kid, I once had one of those drinking-bird toys — blown glass, filled with red liquid — that dips its beak into a cup of water, rises, and dips again. When he saw it, I think my father, the rocket scientist, actually giggled in delight. He spent longer playing with it than I did, dipping the bird into water, trying ice water, then warm, puzzling over how it worked. Eventually he published a scientific paper using the bird to illustrate some principles of thermodynamics.

More than anything, scientists are motivated by wonder. You see something that amazes you — whether it's a comet in the sky or an ant carrying a leaf — and you are fascinated. You think, Where did that light come from? or How can it carry something ten times its size? You keep studying it and studying it because it's so freaking cool you can't stop thinking about it. What is this? How does this work? Why does this happen? Your search may take you into the outer reaches of space or the molecular structure of a protein, but at the end, we will understand one tiny piece of the universe, and it will be no less amazing because of it. In all probability, your search will illuminate more questions than it answers.

When I write, I'm motivated by wonder, too. Things happen that intrigue or mystify me; people do things that puzzle or perturb me, and I can't stop thinking about it. I think, How could this happen? Why would a person do this? I keep studying and studying my characters, the twists of their personalities, the many tiny facets of their histories and the big, broad context of their lives. What kind of person is this? What's going on here? At the end of a story, if I've done my job right, our understanding of how we — and the world itself — works gets a little bigger. We know a tiny bit more than we did at the start, but a good story, too, asks the reader more questions than it answers.

Growing up in a family of scientists, I learned to have an insatiable curiosity about the ticking of the world, a delight in small details, the desire to connect the particular to the cosmic — and a certain amount of gleeful play. When I think of it this way, perhaps my family wasn't so unusual; perhaps all writers and all scientists are all, deep down, firmly related. We all want to know why things happen the way they do. We want to mess around and see what happens and see what we can illuminate. We all long to open up our universe just a little bit more.

Celeste Ng

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Customer Reviews

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 33 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 25, 2014

    Everything I Never Told You is a book about race, death, love, l

    Everything I Never Told You is a book about race, death, love, lies, prejudice, academia, and family. This might have had the best first line of any book I have read this year: “Lydia is dead, but they don’t know this yet.” Lydia is the middle child, the favorite child. Her death throws the delicate balance of this mixed race family living in 1970s in Ohio, into a quandary. They must face the things that have been driving them apart.

    I have to admit that this book is something I might not have chosen for myself to read. I missed all the hype about it and only learned about it on Goodreads, as it was the latest pick in the Ford Audiobook Club. This book has been featured in a lot of places. It made the list of Amazon’s Best Books of the Year so far 2014. Being a debut novel, this is really impressive. Now that I have read the book, I can see why.

    This book is so well written. The characters each have a story to tell, secrets to reveal and surprises in their tales for the reader. The time period, 1970s, was such a good choice for this novel. Being part of a mixed race family, (Chinese-American), in a time when mixed couples were being arrested, was very bold. The mother, Madelyn, is white. She wanted to be a doctor in a era when women did not become doctors. She became pregnant early in her academia and then had to settle for being a stay-at-home-mom. James, the father, is a Chinese childhood immigrant. James teaches American History at a college in Ohio. There is a bit of irony there, since all James wants is to fit in as an American. Their relationship is so strained. They bond because they both know what it is like to be different. They both have unfulfilled dreams.

    Lydia is the child that mixes both races. She is the one they project all of their aspirations on. A blue eyed Chinese girl, pretty and smart enough to make all of her parent’s dreams come true. Lydia is a bundle angst. Her deepest wish to please her mother and father, both in their own ways, leaves her a shell.

    There is a big brother, Nath, and a little sister, Hannah. They each have interesting stories that are revealed in this book as well. Reading this book, I couldn’t help feeling like I was peeling back layers to reveal the people in this family as they really are. In the midst of the investigation into how Lydia ended up in the water, this family is made to face their deepest feelings for each other. The feelings missing and the ones they don’t want to admit to. By the time we get into learning about the real Lydia, we can see why she could never have lived up to the challenge her parents set before her.

    I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to be moved by a story. The author’s descriptive style was such a delight to get immersed in. I could see, feel, hear, and touch the narrative. The style of writing is the best I have read all year. The subject and revelations were brutal and hard to digest. Just like real life there was much more than meets the eye to these characters, and this book.

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 5, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    One of three children born to interracial parents, Lydia was cle

    One of three children born to interracial parents, Lydia was clearly the favorite. She was obedient, disciplined, talented, and never caused her parents to worry. When she goes missing and is subsequently found dead, it goes without saying that her parents were truly shocked. It is upon her disappearance that Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng begins, and what follows is a stunning portrait of family obligation, sibling rivalry, marriage, growing up, and societal norms.

    In the wake of Lydia’s death, each member of her family copes differently. Her mom laments the loss of Lydia’s future while regretting her own decisions, her dad seeks solace in unlikely places, and her brother struggles with what he knows about the neighborhood bad boy. Only Lydia’s younger sister has the presence of mind to see the facts for what they really are, but her role in the family prevents her from being outspoken about it. As each member of the family orbits around each other (and not discussing what they know), they give the reader a glimpse into a life that is less picture-perfect than it seems at first.

    Although Everything I Never Told You is centered around Lydia’s death, it is ultimately a complex story that incorporates racial tensions, academic pressures, and a precarious family dynamic based on regret and hope. Each family member is harboring secrets and battling inner demons, culminating in a story that is both poignant and realistic. If you’re looking for a book that could easily mirror reality in the late 1970′s, then this is the one for you.

    Allison @ The Book Wheel

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 11, 2014

    Gripping Story

    I have no idea why this book would get bad reviews on Barnes and Noble. I chose to read this story after discovering that it had been named Amazon's Best Book of 2014 and it had a four star rating on Amazon. I am glad I read it. From beginning to end, this novel captured me. It is a raw and gripping account of a tragic story that we can all learn from. Do not be fooled by poor reviews on BN... this is a very good story that will entrap you from the beginning and will not let you down in the end.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 15, 2014

    Everything I Never Told You goes to the top of the list of the b

    Everything I Never Told You goes to the top of the list of the best books I read this year. It had from the blurb to the very end. I couldn't/wouldn't put it down, no matter how tired I was, I need to know what happened to Lydia. Everything I Never Told You is about a family who entire life changed the moment Lydia, the middle child, didn't come down for breakfast. We get flashbacks on how James and Marilyn Lee met; we learn about their background and the decisions they made that contributed to Lydia's death. 

    In the beginning, as the story became to unfold, I felt sorry for Lydia, but by the end, I was conflicted on how I feel about her. On one hand I feel bad for her, having to live the dreams of her parents; then on the other hand, from being so spoiled and having her way she treated her siblings like pieces of crap, especially Nath. I felt so sorry for Nath and Hannah, definitely Hannah who wasn't even noticed by her family. To me, when the parents actually showed any attention to Nath, Lydia would do or say something to get the attention back to her, even though she supposedly hates it.

    Don't get me started on James and Marilyn, I can't fathom why they're parents. The fact Marilyn forgot all about Hannah is unbelievable. I guess I can kind of see why Marilyn dotted on Lydia, but for the life of me James reason is hard to. Their marriage was one big "What in the world?" 

    I have to say one of my favorite character's besides Hannah, is Jack, oh I liked him from the beginning, there was something about him that was likable. But once the book goes to a certain part, I was like, "Yes, OMG, yes, I completely understand now.

    I love this book and could re read over and over again.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 3, 2015

    Great read on so many levels, incredibly well written and layers

    Great read on so many levels, incredibly well written and layers of complexity.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 25, 2014

    more from this reviewer

    This is my first audio book, and I found myself liking it a bit

    This is my first audio book, and I found myself liking it a bit too much. Perhaps it was her soothing voice, perhaps it was just being read to again but I found myself falling asleep a few times. I told myself I was not going to multitask while listening because I knew I might find myself not listening/paying attention and I really wanted the full experience. That being said, I am hooked!
    Listening to a book on tape is so different from reading the text myself, as I felt the reader threw her own emotions out there for me as she read. I felt either I could validate them myself or go against them. When she spoke, I was either going to feel the same emotions or not, did I feel the hostility/adoration among the characters in the same manner as she did? It was so interesting to sit back and think about this as she read to me. I never really thought about this before, but what a huge influence this reader was having on others. I applied this thought to when I read to others; when I raise and lower the pitch of my voice, emphasizing and drawing out words, I am actually influencing them more than I thought. I guess I should stop and ask them if they feel the same emotion, it just might be an eye-opener.
    So why did Lydia go out into the lake by herself? To take a rowboat out at night, into the lake where her body would breathe its last breath, just didn’t make any sense to anyone who knew Lydia. This heartbreaking event crushes her family, leaving her parents searching for answers. Beginning the book with this tragic event, I have just read what happens towards the end of the book. The author quickly turns back time so we can get a true picture of the whole family before the event occurred. Starting before their mixed marriage, we discover the issues the parents had before tying the knot. Mother had high hopes for her life, a professional career, which was the furthest thing from her mother’s mind. Love got in the way though and then life got busy. I liked the pacing of the book, as time moves quickly yet it slows when the important things in life occurred within the family. Every member of the family is highlighted, all their lives are important as we observe The Lee family. For somewhere within this household lies the clues that lead Lydia to take the boat out that evening, the evening that added another chapter to The Lee household.
    Thank you Ford Audiobook Club for the book.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 25, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    I found this story to be sad and truthful. Sometimes parents don

    I found this story to be sad and truthful. Sometimes parents don't realize the pressure they put on their kids until its too late, sad.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 18, 2014

    When nothing about your teenager is as it seems...

    Though you empathize with every character and shudder at their mistakes, you learn what underlying agendas can do to a family without it even being aware of these pressures. Very well-thought out and developed. I would read again!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 15, 2014

    Quick read of a thought provoking story

    This story portrays how the actions and interactions of a family affect one another. The author does a wonderful job getting the reader to understand the reasons for each family members behavior. It's a sad but captivating story.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 13, 2014

    I love a good mystery especially one that is cerebral so when I

    I love a good mystery especially one that is cerebral so when I first saw this up on Edelweiss I was very, very excited to read it!! Well I
    finally got to it after pushing it further and further down my reading list, I really need to learn to prioritize better, but anyway. So this is one
    of the few books that I was completely hyped up for that actually lived up to the hype! Lydia is dead, but was there foul play or did Lydia
    kill herself? Lydia's family is a little out the ordinary, her mom is constantly on her about applying herself to all these courses so that
    she can one day become a doctor, your basic mom living out her dreams that didn't happen for her through her daughter. Lydia's dad
    is always trying to get her to make more friends to be an average American teenager because he is ashamed of his Chinese heritage.
    Both parents have deep issues from their pasts that are stressing Lydia out. Luckily Lydia has an ally in her older brother Nathan but
    soon he won't be there very much longer because he is headed off to Harvard in the fall. Not knowing where to turn to Lydia starts
    hanging out with the neighborhood bad boy, Jack, whom her brother Nathan strongly disapproves of, but when Lydia realizes that
    she is not the object of Jack's desires but that her brother is things start to slide even faster down hill from there.,The theme of suicide
    is not an easy one to approach especially with it dealing with a teenager but the author did an excellent job of portraying the story with
    grace and understanding though this did make some of the parts in the story a bit boring just because the author choose to stay with
    that style of writing which to me felt almost surreal (like in a dream or when you feel like you are standing outside yourself watching it
    all happen, hope that makes sense) but this type of style is also what makes the suicide not seem to gory or horrifying that you want to
    stop reading the book. So yes some boring parts but the overall content is excellent. 

    Discover: A poignant tale of how family interactions play such a huge part in who we become and the decisions that we make.  
    4 stars means this to me: A great read. Memorable and highly entertaining. Recommended, but for whatever reason, not the
     all consuming experience that I feel characterizes a five star book. Maybe one or two minor issues. 

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 25, 2015

    Gripping story from Gripping Story

    Gripping story from beginning to end.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 16, 2015

    Really good.

    Really good.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2015

    Family dynamics

    In any family, there are bargains, expectations, alliances, often unspoken, which drive relationships. This novel explores a family whose complete failure at communication impacts each member in a myriad of ways. The ghostly ties that bind the parents and children in the story create a web of love and tragedy. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and also bought a copy for my DIL.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2014

    Everything I Never Told

    This book steels you.... like your in every breathing moment of this tale.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 27, 2014

    ..... First - I have not read the book - BUT .. if it is even ha

    ..... First - I have not read the book - BUT .. if it is even half as interesting as the BIO of the author - it's bound to be a delightful and mind re-filling book.. I shall read it.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 11, 2014

    Depressing and dark with unlikable characters.  Unfortunately, t

    Depressing and dark with unlikable characters.  Unfortunately, the mother was portrayed as responsible for this dysfunctional    family' s family's tragedies.  Blaming the mother....hiw sad and trite.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 13, 2014


    don't remember it

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 1, 2014

    Not an up beat story

    This family is disfunctional and I guess they did the best they could. A little depressing.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2014


    Sad and depressing

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 23, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 33 Customer Reviews

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