Everything I Never Told You

The story opens with the death of 16-year-old Lydia. Her family has gathered for breakfast on a busy May morning. It’s the usual chaos, two kids running in and out of the kitchen gathering homework and school bags and eating on the run.

It’s the 1970s and the father, James, is a history professor in a small town in Ohio; the mother, Marilyn, an unwilling homemaker.

Celeste Ng’s luminous first novel deals with issues of race, sex discrimination, and a parent who places burdensome academic expectations on a child.

This literary mystery moves fast and jumps back and forth in time to James and Marilyn’s past. James, a super smart Japanese-American, was lucky enough to attend the private school where his father worked maintenance. Throughout his childhood, James was mocked for his skin color and the slant of his eyes.

Marilyn, on the other hand, grew up with a single divorced mom--the high school home economics teacher whose only goal for her daughter was for her to marry well.  In high school Marilyn petitioned to take shop and not home ec, but her request was denied.

Her mom wore white gloves and wrote messages to herself in her Betty Crocker cookbook such as: “You’ll find your skill with a salad makes its own contribution to the quality of life in your house.”  All her life, Marilyn had dreamed of becoming a doctor, but in her senior year of college she falls in love with James, gets pregnant and drops out of school.

Marilyn’s mother attends her daughter’s wedding, but is disappointed in her daughter’s choice, and they never see her again.

Like her mom, Lydia plans to become a doctor. Her mother who hates cooking and homemaking showers all her attention on her oldest daughter, buying her biology textbooks, charts of human anatomy, and working with her on her science and math. Lydia shines under the attention until high school where she starts falling behind in physics.

The book is excellent at presenting sibling and family relationships. Lydia is also James’s favorite child. The other children, Nath and Hannah, are surprisingly loving and patient with Lydia, and accepting although hurt by their parent’s obsession and doting devotion of Lydia. Both feel worthless and ignored.

Lydia takes up with their neighbor, Nath’s nemesis, Jack, who is also a high school senior. He’s got a reputation about being fast with girls and a package of condoms in his glove department to prove it. Lydia climbs in his car one day after school, soon she has taken up cigarettes.  But to her disappointment, Jack just wants to talk, and often about her brother.

Then on May 3rd, Lydia does not come down for breakfast. Was she murdered? Was Jack involved?  You’ll have to read the book for the denouement. But this portrait of a mixed race family makes a compelling read.

For another book about a young woman dealing with parental expectations is Kathryn Ma's The Year She Left Us about a young adoptee trying to come to terms with two vastly different cultures.