I’ve never been an enormous fan of Reese Witherspoon; I think she has talent and she had really shone in some things I’ve seen her in (Legally Blonde, Election, Cruel Intentions) but there was always just something about her, though, that set my teeth a little on edge; nothing I can explain, but she just always struck me as the “I need to speak to your manager” type. But her television work has turned me into a fan, and not just because she’s been killing it in shows like Big Little Lies, The Morning Show, and Little Fires Everywhere…she’s been terrific in all of these shows, but the bigger picture is these shows have introduced me to two writers with whose work I’ve become enamored; Liliane Moriarity and Celeste Ng. Moriarity has more of a backlist than Ng, who only has published two novels; I’m working my way through Moriarty as of yet, and loving her work, but Celeste Ng is a whole other story.
Little Fires Everywhere was a terrific novel, and I was holding off on reading her debut, Everything I Never Told You, primarily because I didn’t want to run out of work by Celeste Ng to read (one of my weird predilections; I never want to run out of books by writers I love). But during the aftermath of Ida and with no power, I picked it up, started reading, and didn’t put it down until hours later, when I’d finished.
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 crackle 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 her 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.
One of the things that strikes me as curious about Ng’s work is that it’s set in the past; Little Fires Everywhere was set in the 90’s, and this, her debut, is set in 1977. Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with writing stories set in the past, mind you, it’s just an observation. But the two books have very strong themes and look at the roles of women in the society in which they were born; that entire thing about “having it all” (which is mythology, of course; no one is superhuman enough to “have it all”) and the bitter reality that a woman cannot, ever, no matter how hard she works and no matter how much effort she puts into it, achieve this mysteriously, vaguely defined “all” she is theoretically able to have. It’s still a problem for women in our current time; the inability for gender roles to be completely redefined, for one, despite the fact that society and culture have dramatically changed and shifted over the last few decades (four or five of them, at the very least).
Anyway, I digress.
The Lee family, who live in a small college town near Dayton in Ohio, are a typical American family. Dad teaches at the university, Mom is a housewife and mom, and their two eldest children are academic stars at the local high school. The youngest child is a mere afterthought, an asterisk, to whom no one really pays much attention. Both parents are completely wrapped up in Lydia, their second child; much to the detriment of the oldest, Nathan (Nath). Lydia is soon found when they drag the nearby lake; whether she committed suicide, it was an accident, or foul play is pretty much up in the air–although they did find her things in a small rowboat floating out in the middle of the water, so accident or suicide is most likely, but Mom Marilyn refuses to believe her child could or would do such a thing and therefore it must be murder!
This is, of course, a classic set-up for a crime novel or a novel about families; the twist here is that James, the husband/father, is Chinese-American (his parents were immigrants) and Marilyn the mom, is white and from Virginia.; therefore their children are bi-racial, and this was still kind of a “thing” in the 1970’s (not that it isn’t still, of course; progress has been made but it’s also been rather on the slow side, really). When James and Marilyn marry, miscegenation laws are still on the books; Marilyn’s own mother is such a racist bitch she says horrible things to Marilyn on her wedding day–which is the last time Marilyn sees or speaks to her mother. They are the only Asians in their little college town, which also impacts the kids and how they see, not only their parents, but the world. Marilyn is also a frustrated feminist; she wanted to be a doctor, took Science classes against the advise of teachers and advisors, and only gives up on her dreams when she becomes pregnant and marries James, becomes a wife and mother….and channels all her frustrated hopes and dreams onto her daughter, Lydia–who has a lot of trouble, as we see over the course of the book, living up to those hopes and dreams. There are no villains or heroes in this book; just complicated human beings doing their best to get through their lives–and how the things unsaid to each other, for whatever reason…and as we get to know each character and their own foibles and flaws and dreams, they become fully realized, and the reader cannot help but love and empathize with them. The story structure, after the present day opening with Lydia dead, flashes back and forth between the present and the past, as we learn the story of the Lees and their broken hopes and dreams; watch them deal with the horrific and completely inexcusable casual racism of their white neighbors and classmates; as Marilyn meets women who followed their dreams and envies them, wonders how they managed to do it; and there’s also a queer subtext/plot thread that is handled delicately and beautifully–if perhaps not realistically for small town Ohio in the 1970’s; whatever issues I may have with the realism of the story in the time in which it is said can easily be set aside because of how beautifully Ng does it as an author.
Everything I Never Told You is an absolute gem of a novel, and I can highly recommend it.