Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, is a well-written and fast-paced read that will disappoint anyone who has already heard that it’s a bad idea for parents to try to live through their children.
At the beginning of the novel, from the first line of it, in fact, “Lydia is dead.” It’s a little like the British TV series Broadchurch, which begins with the death of a young boy and then reconstructs what happened. In this case, however, the dead young woman is sixteen years old and what happened to her, while not murder, came from entirely inside her own family.
Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, is a caricature of a 1970’s woman who wants to be liberated. She marries and gets pregnant before finishing college, and so she doesn’t pursue her dream of being a medical doctor. When her own mother dies, it’s the impetus for Marilyn to take steps to make her own life different from her mother’s. Instead of discussing it with her husband and telling her two small children, however, Marilyn takes off without explanation and lives for two months on her own, until the discovery of another pregnancy derails her plan to finish her college degree. Why she can’t go back to school after the baby is born is not apparent, except that she has given up on herself and transferred her ambition to her daughter Lydia, who will say yes to anything her mother suggests in the superstitious belief that this will prevent her from leaving again.
Lydia’s father, James, who grew up as the only Chinese boy in his small Iowa town, wants his half Chinese children to fit into the small Ohio community he has settled the family into. Disappointed in his older son, who reminds him disconcertingly of himself, James settles the weight of his expectations on Lydia, who is supposed to have the friends and the popularity that eluded James.
Lydia’s older brother Nath and younger sister Hannah are also caricatures, rivals for the attention of her parents and sometimes allies against their unrealistic expectations.
The saddest part of Lydia’s death is that when you get to the end of the novel, you see that she’d finally realized that it was up to her to assert her own ambitions for her life, but since she hadn’t been taught how to do such a thing in stages, her final demonstration that things could be different also fails. She tosses herself in the water, but she has never learned how to swim and can’t learn it all at once without any help.
Everything I Never Told You has a moral implicit in its title, so you can take the moral and skip the illustrative parable that goes with it. Here’s how I would phrase the moral of this story: don’t expect your children to do the things you always wished you could do; it will turn out badly.
And here’s another moral, less explicit in the novel because it’s harder to caricature: tell your children what they do well every chance you get, because what you want them to do well and what they want to do well are not often the same thing, and the weight of your expectations can keep them from launching at the right time to reach their most ambitious goals, the ones you didn’t even know you’d like to see them eyeing.