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Book: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng is an American novelist and writer. She holds a degree in English from Harvard University and Master of Fine Arts in writing from University of Michigan. Everything I Never Told You is Ng's first novel and has won her the Amazon Book of the Year award in 2014 and has been translated into 15 languages. Little Fires Everywhere and Our Missing Hearts are two of her other novels that were published in 2017 and 2022 respectively. 

Everything I Never Told You opens with Lydia Lee daughter of a Chinese-American couple found missing. After a few days, her dead body is seen at a lake in her neighbourhood. During the investigation, truth about Lydia's academics and social life surface. Much to the disbelief of her parents James Lee and Marilyn, she has very poor grades at school and absolutely no friends. She had been a loner always. After months of investigation, police confirm the unbelievable about her death. 

Whom to be blamed? How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s  mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers......Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible. 

Marilyn's mom taught home economics at Senior High School and her only ambition in life is to see her daughter settle down with a man from Harvard. But growing up Marilyn always aspired to be a doctor. Contrary to the girls of her age who were fashion-oriented with an exciting social life, she always locked herself up in a room with piles of books around her. 

James was born in America to Chinese parents who illegally moved and settled in America. James was always treated differently in the country he was born which made him feel he doesn't belong there. So naturally he grew up to be shy. He met Marilyn in the class where he taught American culture and their acquaintance grew into a serious relationship. They got married while Marilyn is pregnant with their first child Nathan (Nath), much to the disapproval of Marilyn's mother - first James is different i.e., isn't an American like them and second he isn't from Harvard.

Marilyn is happily married with two children - Nath and Lydia. She neither spoke nor tried to know the whereabouts of her mother since her wedding. After 8 years, she receives the news that her mother has passed away. When Marilyn visits her mother's home, she comes across her cookbook and realizes the bitter truth that she is finally leading the homemaker life her mother always dreamt for her. Soon after reaching home, Marilyn leaves her family without informing and enrolls herself into a school to continue her studies. After few weeks, she realizes that she is pregnant with her third child - Hannah and reunites with her family coming to terms with her homemaker life. But she is determined to make her daughter Lydia a doctor and starts to pressurize the little girl with maths, physics, biology and related topics that are too much for her age and most importantly without knowing what Lydia wants in life. 

On the other hand, Lydia silently obeys all the instructions from her mother believing she might loose her mother forever, if she displeases her. James finds Nath to be much like himself as a kid - shy, timid, often bullied and called by names like chink by other kids at school and his swimming classes. So he too shifts his focus on Lydia and insists her to be outgoing and blend in. 

Lee's family and their lives completely revolve around Lydia, making Nath and Hannah almost invisible. Vulnerable Nath once pushes Lydia into a late. Struck by guilt, he immediately saves her. As years pass by, the burden of studies and parents' expectations on Lydia grows; she learns about her father's affair; Nath drifts away from her due to her closeness with Jack, whom he hates; Nath will soon leave to Harvard; Jack makes a shocking revelation to her. With all these Lydia feels lonely once again. 

In the present day, Marilyn learns about her husband's affair with his assistant, Nath believes Jack is the reason for Lydia's death, Hannah discovers Jack is in love with Nath.

The book ends with Nath confronting and smashing Jack at the lake. Then Nath jumps into the lake to know What it was like, what she was thinking, everything she’d never told him. Jack saves Nath.   

Ng has been quoted saying she developed this plot based on her personal experiences with racism. She has done a commendable job in building the story. The book ends inconclusively without explicitly telling why and how Lydia died. But the reader can definitely make out. 

Ng opens this book with "Lydia is dead" and then goes on to reveal other characters, life from their perspective, their relationship with others and everything they never told anyone. This book deals with the lives of a family who are victims of racism, their struggle for acceptance - as equals in the society at a time (1940 - 1980) where a person of colour is rare amongst the ocean of whites; parents trying to achieve their unfulfilled dreams through children; children's struggle to please parents; siblings rivalry etc. Below are few excerpts from the book to emote the characters' inner struggle.

She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within....Lydia knew what they wanted so desperately, even when they didn’t ask. Every time, it seemed such a small thing to trade for their happiness. So she studied algebra in the summertime. She put on a dress and went to the freshman dance. She enrolled in biology at the college, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, all summer long.

What about Hannah? They set up her nursery in the bedroom in the attic, where things that were not wanted were kept.......Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling tablecloths, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change. 

He pushed her in. And then he pulled her out. All her life, Lydia would remember one thing. All his life, Nath would remember another.

You loved so hard and hoped so much and then you ended up with nothing. Children who no longer needed you. A husband who no longer wanted you. Nothing left but you, alone, and empty space.

“You’ve never been in a room where no one else looked like you. You’ve never had people mock you to your face. You’ve never been treated like a stranger.”....“You have no idea what it’s like, being different.”

Everything I Never Told You is a complex story of a struggled family; told by elaborating each character, their inner struggles, their dreams, in their voice. If you can digest strong emotions and can handle a slow paced read, you may like this title!! 

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