‘Everything I Never Told You,’ by Celeste Ng
Lydia, the second child of Marilyn and James Lee is late for breakfast that day. It would be a couple of days before they find her body in the lake nearby. Whether it was a murder or a suicide is just incidental in the story that follows, or precedes, as you may look at it. Marilyn is the regular American girl, who was brought up by a single mom who pushed her to do well in studies and get into Harvard because, “You know, you’ll meet a lot of wonderful Harvard men.” James, on the other hand, is second generation Chinese, and the subject he teaches seem to be quite contrary to his nature and upbringing, ” The Cowboy in American Culture.” Whether they fall in love is a moot point. Rather, for James it is blending into the American culture and for Marilyn, maybe a matter of rebelling against her mother.
As the police conduct their routine enquiries and finally concludes it is not a murder, the family seem to unravel as the story goes back on forth from the present to past and back. Marilyn wanted to be a doctor and was doggedly pursuing her dreams when she gets married to James. As she gets pregnant with Nath, the dream is kept on the back burner. She doesn’t lose hope even as Lydia follows. Her mother’s death and her cookbook shakes her out of her reverie and makes her do something drastic. But she is forced to return to her life with James and the kids as their child, Hannah arrives.
For James, life had always been a struggle to fit into a society that saw him as an outsider. By virtue of his parents being a janitor and a kitchen helper in an exclusive private school, he gets a free education of the best kind. He never feels accepted though, because of his looks and totally different background. And that tunes out to be his bane throughout his life.
Lydia, who was always ready to please, naturally gets burdened by the unfulfilled dreams of her parents. She dare not disagree to their expectations in fear of disappointing or even losing them. The brilliant Nath and the quiet Hannah gets sidelined in their parent’s lives as Lydia is bombarded with medical books right from her childhood. For James, she is the chosen one who can blend in an otherwise all American school, for hasn’t she inherited her mother’s blue eyes?
Nath is the only one who understands Lydia’s helplessness. She grows despondent as Nath prepares to leave for college. Hannah seems to blend into the background, even as she is the one who absorbs everything. They are on the periphery of their parent’s attention almost always. Yet, there is no ran our in their behavior towards Lydia. In fact, they seem to be the only ones who can really understand her feeling of hopelessness.
The story is a reminder of what parents inadvertently do to their kids by superimposing their dreams on to them, taking them for granted, without even caring to think for a moment what the kids themselves want or are capable of. We transfer our frustrations to them, unknowingly. The poor things continue to try to please us, till one day, they reach a breaking point. Even the gifts we get for them, isn’t it guided by our notion of what is good rather than what they would enjoy?
It is also about adult relationships. Over the years, couples tend to take each other for granted, their focus getting diverted into careers, children and other routine matters. Certain remarks could stay with you for life and affect your relationship so deeply, that it can impact the existence of your family, even. There is hope as well, that it may never be too late to mend broken hearts. What is heartening is the fact that many a time it is those very kids who were taken for granted, who holds the family together, in the end. What I really loved is how none of the characters are black or white. Everyone is human, with their share of flaws and imperfections.
Celeste Ng has brought out the thoughts and emotions of her characters so well. It is wonderful how she gets into the mind of young adults, each fighting a battle of their own. Especially touching was Jack. The ones that we label as rebels, if only someone took out some time to get to know the real them.
Being parents is no trivial matter, the story reminded me yet again.
Verdict – If you love family stories with shadows of psychological analysis , you will love it. Well written with a gripping narration.