Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
So begins the debut novel, Everything I never told you, by Celeste Ng. Sixteen-year-old Lydia is the middle child of Marilyn and James Lee. She is also their favourite as both her parents hope she will be able to fulfil their dreams. Her mother wants Lydia to become a doctor instead of a homemaker like her, while her father wants Lydia to be popular at school in a way he never was due to his race. But being mixed race in 1970s small-town Ohio is not easy for teenager and along with family expectations, it adds to pressures in Lydia’s life.
Following her death, her father James goes on a self-destructive path of coping while her mother Marilyn wants answers and wants someone accountable. Her older brother, Nathan who is about to head off to college, knows her better than her parents but thinks bad boy Jack may have something to do with Lydia’s death. Then there’s Hannah, her younger sister. Always the quiet one, she has noticed more than everyone else realises. As they reflect separately on the past, trying to make sense of Lydia’s death, they may uncover uncomfortable truths to figure out what really happened.
This is a beautifully written book exploring issues of race, ethnicity, gender and adolescence. James and the children all struggle with their race and standing out in predominantly white Ohio. Marilyn on the other hand, has had her own struggles of studying medicine at a time when women were expected to become homemakers. Their struggles in an inter-racial relationship, bringing up children with their own dreams in mind and dealing with a changing world evoke empathy from the reader.
For me, it hit close to home in terms of race, gender and adolescence. I was able to identify with almost all characters — James and his issues with race and acceptance, Marilyn and her fight for equality based on gender, Lydia’s and Nathan’s struggles with adolescence and parental expectations — it was all too familiar. It is a sad book but beautifully written. Ng keeps the reader hooked till the very last page. And when you finish, like me, you might have tears in your eyes and a heaviness in your heart.
It’s a book that will stay with you for a long time.
Until next time,