By Celeste Ng
Penguin Press, 2014, 297 pages
Genre: Psychological Fiction
Collier County Public Library: Yes
“Family likeness has often a deep sadness in it.”— George Eliot
For all of her life, her mother, a high school home economics teacher, had been grooming Marilyn to be the perfect homemaker, with all the virtues to attract the perfect husband, the goal of many 1950s young American females. Marilyn, however, wanted to be different. She wanted to be a physician.
James was raised by Chinese immigrants, both of whom worked at the school he attended. They were the only Asian (or Oriental in the vernacular of that time) people in their community. James was different, and all he wanted was to fit in and not be noticed.
James Lee and Marilyn Walker met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when in her junior year at Radcliffe, she enrolled in his class, “The American Cowboy.” Almost immediately, they began a love affair which resulted in pregnancy and their subsequent marriage. After Harvard did not offer fourth-year graduate student James a professorial position, the new Lee family moved to Middletown, Ohio, where baby Nathan was quickly followed by lovely Lydia. James establishes himself at the college. Marilyn employs all the domestic science skills learned at her mother’s knee, makes a home and relishes raising her two small children. Both parents are enamored of the lovely Lydia, a blend of James’ jet black hair and Marilyn’s facial features and blue eyes.
With Lydia’s approaching enrollment in elementary school, her own approaching 30th birthday and her mother’s sudden death, Marilyn becomes consumed with a yearning to finish her degree and go on to medical school. So much so that for some unfathomable reason, instead of discussing it with James, she enrolls in a college in Toledo, rents an efficiency, writes a note that she tears up, packs her bags and leaves her family to pursue her dream. Marilyn never grasps the magnitude of the impact her disappearance had on her family’s lives. It is absolutely pivotal in the children’s lives. Lydia solemnly vows to always be good and do everything her mother asks if only she is found and comes back. Nathan discovers his life’s passion, space exploration and experiences a permanent rift with his father. He also tries to drown Lydia, but then saves her.
A trip and fall in a parking lot requires Marilyn to visit the emergency room where it is discovered that she is in the first trimester of her third pregnancy. So, once again, Marilyn’s educational endeavors are truncated by pregnancy. Although she returns to the family home, Marilyn is never again the mother they remember. She relies on canned and packaged products for meal preparation. Like her daughter, Marilyn has taken a vow — to let go of her own professional aspirations and to channel her energy into Lydia to make sure her daughter has the life she herself did not achieve. She is absolutely driven in this resolve to the detriment of her relationships with the other family members.
Little Hannah is born into all this dysfunction six months after Marilyn’s return. She is virtually ignored by her family. Hannah literally walks around on her tip toes, sits under tables and sleeps in her bedroom in the attic, where her crib was placed when she was brought home from the hospital —where families put things they have no use or need for. Although she is almost invisible to the rest of the family, she knows all of them much better than they know themselves.
The story begins, “Lydia was dead. But they don’t know this yet…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.” It is May 3, 1977, and the Lees will not know for about a week that the center of their universe, their golden child, is dead. Nathan, who has earned early admission to Harvard, is just back from a several-day visit to that campus, and has been eagerly anticipating his escape from his parents, from Lydia and from small town Middlewood to Harvard and the beginning of his own life.
When James and Marilyn report their missing daughter to the police, they unknowingly begin a long journey toward discovering the real Lydia. After her body is recovered when they drag the nearby lake, they refuse to accept the authorities’ judgment that it was a possible suicide. They know she was murdered, and Marilyn swears to find the responsible party. After they bury Lydia, the Lee family disintegrates, each member insulating him/herself from the collective agony and grief. Marilyn goes to her room after the funeral, while James goes to his office at the college but ends up in the apartment (and arms) of his teaching assistant, 23-year-old Louisa Chen. Neither parent is there for Nathan or Hannah.
Although Marilyn feels just about anyone could be responsible for Lydia’s death, Nathan is sure that the odd-behaving Jack Wolff, his classmate and neighbor, is somehow involved. Jack has always been strange in Nathan’s eyes, and Jack has a reputation at school for being a ladies’ man, a love-them-and-leave-them type. Nathan had seen Jack and Lydia together more than once.
“Everything I Never Told You” is a remarkably well-written 297 pages of mesmerizing human drama. There is a hint of mystery and suspense — how did Lydia die — but the storylines are mainly about family relationships. We all put expectations on the other people in our lives, and rarely do we think of the consequences those expectations might have for those involved. Most of us love our family members at least most of the time, but do we really know them? All parents want their children to succeed but at whose goals? Their own or that of their parents? How do we come back to our family after we have steeped ourselves in self-absorption? How do siblings resolve their rivalry and love/hate emotional relationships? Most do so in adulthood, but if one sibling does not make it into adulthood, what happens? Rifts, love, reconciliation, rejection, negligence, lying, betrayal, all the things that make up life are part of the Lee family drama. Read all about it. It is well worth your time.
Rating: 4.8/5.0. Available everywhere in all formats.
Happy New Year!
Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher as well as various occupations in the health care field. She shares a hometown with Abraham Lincoln, Springfield, Illinois, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, walking on the beach, reading, movies and writing, are among her pursuits outside of work. She is self employed and works from her Naples home.