Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I can't remember where I heard about this book, but I'm certainly glad I discovered it.  The book is a fascinating study of family relationships and particularly how the past of the parents shape their dreams for their children.  It also shows how we often really know very little about the people we think we know best.

The story starts with the disappearance of 16 year old Lydia.  She is the middle child of a Chinese-American father and a southern white woman - and she is clearly their favourite.  The father is a professor at a small college in Ohio and the family is one of very few non-white families in this small town in the 1970s.  When Lydia's body is found at the bottom of a lake, the family struggles to figure out what happened.

The narrative shifts perspective and time fairly frequently.  We see the years and days leading up to Lydia's disappearance through her eyes, those of her parents, her older brother, Nathan, and her younger sister, Hannah.  Though the children clearly saw the pressure the parents put on Lydia - her mother wanted her to be a doctor, thus fulfilling her childhood dreams which were abandoned when she fell in love and had children; while her father wanted her to be popular and to fit in, something he was never able to accomplish as the only non-white, working class child at an exclusive private school.

Lydia tried very hard to please her parents and eventually struggled under the weight of that burden though it was an encounter with her friend Jack, the neighbourhood bad boy, that leads her to try to conquer her fears and choose her own future which ends badly in the local lake.  Nathan suspects Jack is involved in Lydia's death and in the end we see that Jack is harbouring secrets, though very different ones than Nathan suspects.  Through most of the book I felt very sad for this family - everyone trying so hard but not quite getting it - but in the very last chapter I felt maybe the parents had learned from what happened and might be able to redeem both their relationship and that with their remaining children.

I really recommend this book if you like to look at family relationships, parental pressure, how the past influences present behaviour and even racism in the US in the 1950s through 1970s.

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