“A taut tale of ever deepening and quickening suspense." -O, the Oprah Magazine
"Explosive...Both a propulsive mystery and a profound examination of a mixed-race family." -Entertainment Weekly
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, 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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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
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?”
Excerpted from "Everything I Never Told You"
Copyright © 2014 Celeste Ng.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
If we know this story, we haven't seen it yet in American fiction, not until now… Ng has set two tasks in this novel's doubled heartto be exciting, and to tell a story bigger than whatever is behind the crime. She does both by turning the nest of familial resentments into at least four smaller, prickly mysteries full of secrets the family members won't share… 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 kinda burden you do not always survive.
School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year So Far
BookRiot’s The Best Books of 2014 So Far
Booklist’s Top Ten First Novels of 2014
Booklist Editors' Choice of 2014
Time Out NY’s 10 Best Books of 2014 – #10
O Magazine’s 15 Must Read Literature & Fiction Books of the Year So Far, #4
NYTBR 100 Notable Books of 2014
Huffington Post’s Best Books of 2014
NPR Books of the Year
Electric Lit Books of the Year
Buzzfeed’s Best Fiction Books of 2014
Alexander Chee, The New York Times Book Review:
“If we know this story, we haven’t seen it yet in American fiction, not until now… Ng has set two tasks in this novel’s doubled heart—to be exciting, and to tell a story bigger than whatever is behind the crime. She does both by turning the nest of familial resentments into at least four smaller, prickly mysteries full of secrets the family members won’t share… 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.”
Los Angeles Times:
“Excellent…an accomplished debut… heart-wrenching…Ng deftly pulls together the strands of this complex, multigenerational novel. Everything I Never Told You is an engaging work that casts a powerful light on the secrets that have kept an American family together—and that finally end up tearing it apart.”
“Wonderfully moving…Emotionally precise…A beautifully crafted study of dysfunction and grief…[This book] will resonate with anyone who has ever had a family drama.”
San Francisco Chronicle:
“A subtle meditation on gender, race and the weight of one generation’s unfulfilled ambitions upon the shoulders—and in the heads—of the next… Ng deftly and convincingly illustrates the degree to which some miscommunications can never quite be rectified.”
O, The Oprah Magazine:
“Cleverly crafted, emotionally perceptive… Ng sensitively dramatizes issues of gender and race that lie at the heart of the story… Ng’s themes of assimilation are themselves deftly interlaced into a taut tale of ever deepening and quickening suspense.”
Los Angeles Review of Books:
“Ng moves gracefully back and forth in time, into the aftermath of the tragedy as well as the distant past, and into the consciousness of each member of the family, creating a series of mysteries and revelations that lead back to the original question: what happened to Lydia?...Ng is masterful in her use of the omniscient narrator, achieving both a historical distance and visceral intimacy with each character’s struggles and failures…On the surface, Ng’s storylines are nothing new. There is a mysterious death, a family pulled apart by misunderstanding and grief, a struggle to fit into the norms of society, yet in the weaving of these threads she creates a work of ambitious complexity. In the end, this novel movingly portrays the burden of difference at a time when difference had no cultural value…Compelling.”
“Both a propulsive mystery and a profound examination of a mixed-race family, Ng’s explosive debut chronicles the plight of Marilyn and James Lee after their favored daughter is found dead in a lake.”
“The mysterious circumstances of 16-year-old Lydia Lee’s tragic death have her loved ones wondering how, exactly, she spent her free time. This ghostly debut novel calls to mind The Lovely Bones.”
“A powerhouse of a debut novel, a literary mystery crafted out of shimmering prose and precise, painful observation about racial barriers, the burden of familial expectations, and the basic human thirst for belonging… Ng’s novel grips readers from page one with the hope of unraveling the mystery behind Lydia’s death—and boy does it deliver, on every front.”
Chris Schluep, Parade:
“The first chapter of Celeste Ng’s debut novel is difficult—the oldest daughter in a family is dead—but what follows is a brilliantly written, surprisingly uplifting exploration of striving in the face of alienation and of the secrets we keep from others. This could be my favorite novel of the year.”
Kevin Nguyen, Grantland:
“The emotional core of Celeste Ng’s debut is what sets it apart. The different ways in which the Lee family handles Lydia’s death create internal friction, and most impressive is the way Ng handles racial politics. With a deft hand, she loads and unpacks the implications of being the only Chinese American family in a small town in Ohio.”
“Beautiful and poignant…. deftly drawn….It’s hard to believe that this is a debut novel for Celeste Ng. She tackles the themes of family dynamics, gender and racial stereotyping, and the weight of expectations, all with insight made more powerful through understatement. She has an exact, sophisticated touch with her prose. The sentences are straightforward. She evokes emotions through devastatingly detailed observations.”
Minneapolis Star Tribune:
“Perceptive…a skillful and moving portrayal of a family in pain…It is to Ng’s credit that it is sometimes difficult for the reader to keep going; the pain and unhappiness is palpable. But it is true to the Lees, and Ng tells all.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
“Impressive… In its evocation of a time and place and society largely gone but hardly forgotten, Everything I Never Told You tells much that today’s reader should learn, ponder and appreciate.”
“Quiet and intense…A family drama that reveals its secrets slowly, drawing you in."
Dallas Morning News:
“Powerful…[A] beautifully crafted story of a family in pain, and the many reasons, personal and societal, that the Lees have lived most of their lives as strangers to one another. Making us care so deeply about her characters is Ng’s triumph.”
Ann Arbor Observer:
“Deeply moving…masterful…[Ng] doesn’t give her characters any easy futures or her readers any false hope.”
“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.”
Time Out New York:
“[A] tender debut…The novel touches on the myriad paths grief may take, the secrets everyone keeps and how much a tragedy can affect relationships in a family.”
Sara Vilkomerson, Entertainment Weekly:
“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-.”
“[A] moving tale… of daughters for whom cultural disconnect is but the first challenge.”
“[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.”
Amanda Nelson, Book Riot:
“On the surface, this is about a mixed-race Asian-American family dealing with and trying to solve the mysterious death of their favorite teenaged daughter in ‘70s Ohio (this isn’t a spoiler, it happens in the first sentence). What it’s really about all the ways we can be an ‘other’—in society, in our own marriages, in our jobs, and to our parents or children. It’s also about pressure—the pressure to be with people who are like ourselves, and to fit in, and to be everything our parents want us to be. It’s about giving up your career to become a wife and mother, and what that means and doesn’t mean. It’s about dealing with prejudice. It’s about secrets and happiness and misery, and all the things we never tell the people we love. It’s about everything, is what I’m saying, and not a single word is wasted or superfluous.”
Publishers Weekly (starred):
“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 remarkably imagined, her unhappy teenage life crafted without an ounce of cliché. Ng’s prose is precise and sensitive, her characters richly drawn.”
Library Journal (starred):
“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.”
“Tantalizingly thrilling, Ng’s emotionally complex debut novel captures the tension between cultures and generations with the deft touch of a seasoned writer. Ng will be one to watch.”
“Ng expertly explores and exposes the Lee family’s secrets… 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.”
Jesmyn Ward, National Book Award-winning author of Salvage the Bones:
“Ng tells a story weighted by death and grief that is vital in all the essential ways; these characters betray and love blindly and are needy and accuse and forgive. They are achingly human, and Ng's writing about them is tender and merciless all at once. At the same time, her story is also about what it means to live in two worlds at the same time, to be Asian and American, an insider and an outsider, and Ng writes about all this and more with terrific nuance.”
Uwem Akpan, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Say You’re One of Them:
“I couldn’t stop reading Everything I Never Told You . . . the writing is so smooth and keenly observed. The portrait of each member of the Lee family, the exploration of their mixed-race issues and the search for the killer of their sister and daughter, Lydia, pulled at my heartstrings to the very end.”
Dan Chaon, author of Await Your Reply:
"Everything I Never Told You is a suspenseful and emotionally complex literary mystery novel, which, weaving back and forth in time, unlocks the secrets beneath the surface of family life. Celeste Ng has written a compellingly tense and moving first book."
Ru Freeman, author of On Sal Mal Lane and A Disobedient Girl:
"Celeste Ng leavens the bridge between the disappearance of a young girl, and the personal histories that precede it, with the larger canvas issues of race and gender, without straying from the riveting emotional territory that make up the cornerstones of family: what is given, what is withheld, and what can never be known. Lydia Lee is every parent's dream, fear, and devastation, wholly loved, just as completely lost. It is impossible to resist grieving alongside each one of these bereft, deeply realized characters, for we live their lives, and their story becomes ours from the first paragraph of this marvelous book."
Book Passage (Corte Madera, CA):
“More than a simple portrait of love and loss, this is a beautiful and haunting story of a lost teenage girl attempting to discover her own voice.”
Reading Group Guide
Thank you for choosing Everything I Never Told You for your book club!
Everything I Never Told You is the story of the Lees, a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Marilyn and James are determined that Lydia, the middle and favorite child, will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue: for Marilyn, that her daughter becomes a doctor; for James, that Lydia is 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 is destroyed. 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.
Although the novel takes place in the 1970s, many of the issues the characters face are just as relevant today. Those who are different—racially, culturally, or in any other way—still find themselves pressured to be someone they’re not. Many more routes are open to women today, especially in medicine and science, but women still wrestle to balance careers and personal lives, trying to align what their families need and what they themselves want—as well as society’s expectations of what women, wives, and mothers should be. And, of course, parents yearn to make a better life for their children while the children themselves often feel defined (and confined) by their parents’ dreams.
In writing Everything I Never Told You, I was surprised to remember how different things were just a generation or two ago—and how much they’ve stayed the same. Why do we keep secrets, even from those we love most? How well do we ever really know each other? What do we expect of our children, and of our parents? And what holds families together, even in the face of unthinkable tragedies?
I hope you enjoy the novel, and I hope it sparks lots of interesting discussion for your group!
ABOUT CELESTE NG
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.
A CONVERSATION WITH CELESTE NG
What compelled you to write this book?
My stories almost always begin with images—in this case, the image of a young girl falling into deep water. I started writing to figure out how she got there: Was she pushed? Did she slip? Did she jump? As I wrote my way into the book, I discovered it was a story about not just the girl but about her family, her family’s history, and everything in her life that had led her to this point and about whether (and how) her family would be able to go on. What seemed like the end of the story actually turned out to be the center.
The discovery of Lydia’s death spurs so many questions for her family. How did you approach writing about loss and grief?
When you lose someone you love, especially suddenly, there’s immense regret and immense self-doubt. It’s impossible not to ask yourself questions: Could you have saved them in some way? Could you, by leaving five minutes later or arriving a day earlier or saying just the right words, have changed what happened? Inevitably, you reconsider and reassess the relationship you had with that person, and it can be hardest if that relationship was strained. James, Marilyn, Nath, and Hannah each feel a lot of guilt about their relationships with Lydia—and the ways that, deep down, they know they’ve pressured, disappointed, or failed her—and that complicates their reactions to her death. Any act of writing is an act of empathy: You try to imagine yourself into another person’s mind and skin. I tried to ask myself the questions the characters would have asked themselves.
The relationships between the siblings—Nath, Lydia, and Hannah—are immediately recognizable and so well drawn. They love one another, but they also get angry, jealous, and confused and take it out on one another. Can you speak to their dynamics? Did you draw on your own childhood?
Sibling relationships are fascinating: You have the same parents and grow up alongside each other, yet more often than not, siblings are incredibly different from one another and have incredibly different experiences even within the same family. You share so much that you feel you should understand one another completely, yet of course there’s also enough distance between you that that’s almost never the case. It gets even more complicated when one sibling is clearly the favorite in the family. The family constellation can get really skewed when one star shines much brighter than the rest.
My own sister is eleven years older than I am. Because she was so much older, we never really fought; I actually think our relationship was stronger because we weren’t close in age. At the same time, though, I missed her terribly when I was seven and she went off to college—that informed Lydia’s feelings of abandonment when Nath heads to Harvard. And I always idolized my sister; there’s definitely an aspect of that in Hannah’s relationship with Lydia.
You began writing the book before you had your son. How did becoming a parent affect your approach to your characters and their stories, especially James and Marilyn?
Even before I had children, I often found myself focusing on parents and children in my fiction. Yourrelationship with your parents is maybe the most fundamental and the most powerful, even morethan friendship or romantic love. It’s the first relationship you ever have, and it’s probably the greatestsingle influence on your outlook and the kind of person you become. Most of us spend our lives eithertrying to live up to our parents’ ideals or actively rebelling against them.
When I started writing the novel—having never been a parent—I definitely identified morewith the children, especially Lydia. After my son was born, though, I became much more sympatheticto Marilyn and James. I started to understand how deeply parents want the best for their childrenand how that desire can sometimes blind you to what actually is best. This isn’t to say that I “switchedsides,” only that becoming a parent made my perspective more balanced, I think, and made the bookmore nuanced. Now I identify with the parents at least as much as I identify with the children.
The book is set in Ohio in the 1970s. You grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio—how did your time there inform the book?
Both of the small suburbs I grew up in—first outside Pittsburgh, then outside Cleveland—had a small-town feel. My first elementary school was tiny, one of those schools where the gym is also the cafeteria and the auditorium, and on my street the neighbor kids all played together. But more than that, I remember a distinct sense of restlessness in the air while I was growing up, a feeling that if you wanted an exciting or important or interesting life, you needed to escape. Pittsburgh in the 1980s and Cleveland in the early 1990s were depressed and depressing places: a lot of closed factories, a lot of tension and unemployment, a lot of rust. So I knew the kind of insulated, almost suffocated feeling teenagers like Nath and Lydia—and even adults like James and Marilyn—might have, the feeling that the place you’re in is too small.
Through all members of the Lee family, you write touchingly and perceptively about feeling like an outsider and being measured against stereotypes and others’ perceptions. Can you discuss your personal experience and how you approached these themes in the book?
My parents came to the U.S. from Hong Kong and moved straight into the Midwest: Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio. Most of the time I was growing up, we were virtually the only Asians in the community. In my school in Pittsburgh, for instance, I was one of two nonwhite girls, and the only Asian, in all four grades. Like most Asian Americans, my family experienced some outright discrimination: Once, neighborhood kids put cherry bombs in our mailbox; another time, a man got in our faces while we were waiting at a bus stop, spitting at us and telling us, “Go back to Vietnam or Korea or wherever the hell you came from.”
More insidious than those moments of outright hostility, though, and maybe more powerful are the constant low-level reminders that you’re different. Many of us feel different in some way, but it’s really jarring when one of your differences is obvious at a glance—other people can tell you’re different simply by looking at you. (It’s hard to explain just how strange that is if you’ve never experienced it. My husband and I had talked about it many times, but he didn’t really know what it felt like until we went to Hong Kong and he—a very tall white man—was surrounded by thousands of Asians.) Even when you feel like you belong, other people’s reactions—even stares and offhand remarks—can make you feel that you don’t, startlingly often. I drew on that to imagine the experiences of James, Lydia, Nath, and Hannah, or at least their reactions to those experiences. In terms of actual encounters, I didn’t have to imagine much: They all came from life, from the girls who throw rocks at James’s car, to the people who speak to you slower and louder as if you might not understand English, to the woman in the grocery store who proudly identifies the children as Chinese before pulling her eyes into slits.
In the novel, though, I didn’t want to explore just racial difference. There are all kinds of ways of feeling like an outsider. For example, my mother is a chemist and my sister is a scientist—both women in heavily male-dominated fields—and I often feel like an outsider or an impostor myself: Am I smart enough/experienced enough/insert-adjective-here enough? All of the characters grapple with some version of that feeling.
Marilyn is deeply conflicted about being a homemaker and wanting to finish her degree and achieving more in her professional life. What did you seek to explore through her desires and decisions?
This is a long-standing question that most women face: How do you balance a family and a professional life of your own? I struggle with this myself, as does every other woman I know, and Marilyn’s situation is a magnified version. It’s striking to remember that in her time—just a generation ago—she had so many fewer paths open to her. But even with more options, we haven’t gotten this figured out yet, either. We’re still actively wrestling with the question of balance and women’s roles. Look at the tremendous interest in Lean In and the uproar over Anne-Marie Slaughter’s essay in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Recently a Princeton alumna wrote an essay telling young female grads that the most important thing to do in college was to find a husband. Many women were outraged—but she’s also just published a book. The debate over what women can and should do goes on.
You grew up in a family of scientists. What compelled you to become a writer? How did that shape how you approach writing?
I was always interested in stories—reading them, making them up, telling them to my parents and friends. There’s an argument for nature over nurture right there! But actually, there’s more overlap between science and writing than you’d expect. Scientists are really interested in figuring out how the world works and why things happen the way they do. A science experiment is really a what-if: “Hmm, what if I put these things together under these conditions?” I do the same thing in my writing, only I do it with people on the page: “What if this family was in this situation?”
What does the title Everything I Never Told You mean to you?
The title is actually an echo of one of the last lines of the book. Everything I Never Told You refers, on the one hand, to the secrets that the members of the Lee family keep from one another—all the things they lock inside because they’re afraid to say them or they’re ashamed to say them. But it also refers to all the things they don’t say by accident, so to speak—the things they forget to say because they don’t seem important. After Lydia’s death, each member of her family thinks back to the last time they saw her and what they’d have said if they knew it was the last time. The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you—whether because you didn’t get to have your say or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.
- Discuss the relationships between Nath, Lydia, and Hannah. How do the siblings both understand and mystify one another?
- Why do you think Lydia is the favorite child of James and Marilyn? How does this pressure affect Lydia, and what kind of impact do you think it has on Nath and Hannah? Do you think it is more difficult for Lydia to be the favorite, or for Nath and Hannah, who are often overlooked by their parents?
- “So part of him wanted to tell Nath that he knew: what it was like to be teased, what it was like to never fit in. The other part of him wanted to shake his son, to slap him. To shape him into something different. . . . When Marilyn asked what happened, James said merely, with a wave of the hand, ‘Some kids teased him at the pool yesterday. He needs to learn to take a joke.’”
- How did you react to the “Marco Polo” pool scene with James and Nath? What do you think of James’s decision?
- Discuss a situation in which you’ve felt like an outsider. How do the members of the Lee family deal with being measured against stereotypes and others’ perceptions?
- What is the meaning of the novel’s title? To whom do the “I” and “you” refer?
- What would have happened if Lydia had reached the dock? Do you think she would have been able to change her parents’ views and expectations of her?
- This novel says a great deal about the influence our parents can have on us. Do you think the same issues will affect the next generation of Lees? How did your parents influence your childhood?
- “It struck her then, as if someone had said it aloud: her mother was dead, and the only thing worth remembering about her, in the end, was that she cooked. Marilyn thought uneasily of her own life, of hours spent making breakfasts, serving dinners, packing lunches into neat paper bags.”
- Discuss the relationship Marilyn and her mother have to cooking and their roles as stay-at-home mothers. Do you think one is happier or more satisfied?
- The footprint on the ceiling brings Nath and Lydia closer when they are young, and later, Hannah and James discover it together and laugh. What other objects bring the characters closer together or drive them further apart?
- There’s so much that the characters keep to themselves. What do you wish they had shared with one another? Do you think an ability to better express themselves would have changed the outcome of the book?
Recommended Reading List
Fiction on families, love, and loss
Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout: One of the most potent explorations I’ve read of mother-daughter relationships and the effects long-held secrets can have on a family.
The Love Wife by Gish Jen: A masterful portrait of a contemporary mixed family and the shifting identities, loyalties, and fault lines between its members.
A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein: When his son falls for a woman with a shocking past, a devoted father sets out to derail the relationship—raising the question of how far we’ll go to protect our children and our hopes for them.
The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst: A haunting story about a man determined to understand whether his wife’s death was accident or suicide—but at what emotional cost?
The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson: Simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, this novel follows the members of a family of famous performance artists as the children try to create their own lives in the shadow of their parents’ influence.
Part Asian, 100% Hapa by Kip Fulbeck: Based on “The Hapa Project,” these photos of part Asian people of all ages—and their answers to the question “What are you?”—are beautiful and thought-provoking.
The Chinese in America: A Narrative History by Iris Chang: A highly readable history for those interested in learning more about the history of Chinese Americans.
Adapted from my mom’s original Betty Crocker Cookbook. I did actually make these as a child—how could I not want to? They’re a bit kitschy and very 1960s/70s, but still delicious (unlike, say, aspic). And the space-related theme makes me think of Nath. —Celeste
½ cup butter or margarine, softened
¾ cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla
Food coloring, if desired
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
Dates, nuts, coconut, semisweet chocolate pieces, and candied or maraschino cherries
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2½ tablespoons light cream or 1½ tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Heat the oven to 350°F. Mix thoroughly the butter, sugar, vanilla, and a few drops of food coloring. Work in the flour and salt until the dough holds together. (If the dough is dry, mix in 1 to 2 tablespoons light cream.)
Mold the dough by tablespoonfuls around date, nut, cherry, or a few chocolate pieces. Roll into balls and place the cookies about 1 inch apart on an ungreased baking sheet. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until set but not brown.
Cool; dip the tops of the cookies into the icing. If desired, decorate with coconut, nuts, colored sugar, candies, chocolate pieces, or chocolate shot.
Makes 20 to 25 cookies.
To prepare the icing, mix the confectioners’ sugar, light cream, and vanilla until smooth. If desired, stir in a few drops of food coloring.
For a chocolate icing, increase the light cream to 3 tablespoons (or milk to 2 tablespoons) and stir in 1 ounce of melted unsweetened chocolate.
Brown Sugar Galaxy Cookies: Substitute ½ cup brown sugar (packed) for the confectioners’ sugar and omit the food coloring.
Chocolate Galaxy Cookies: Omit the food coloring and stir 1 ounce of melted unsweetened chocolate into the butter mixture.
On Paper Sons and Chinese immigration
“My Father Was a Paper Son,” Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation
Read at: http://aiisf.org/stories-by-author/737-my-father-was-a-paper-son
A personal story, with a lot of good background about the discrimination faced by Chinese immigrants in the era, both during immigration and afterward.
“Chinese-American Descendants Uncover Forged Family Histories,” NPR
Read at: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/12/17/251833652/chinese-american-descendants-uncover-forged-family-history
An overview of how Chinese Americans are attempting to sort out their complicated family history after learning their ancestors were paper sons.
On women at Radcliffe in the 1950s
“Birth of a Feminist,” Harvard Magazine
Read at: http://harvardmagazine.com/2005/03/birth-of-a-feminist.html
An essay by a member of the Radcliffe class of 1958 (so one year older than Marilyn in my novel), recalling how women were treated in college at the time. This writer was in the humanities, but her description of the atmosphere and attitudes of the time, and the conflict she felt about marriage and career, is really striking.
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.