Everyone is Welcome!
Kent State Stark Library Book Club
Wednesday, February 25th, 2015.
Time: 5:15 p.m.
Meeting will be held in the Library.
Selected by the Amazon Editors as the #1 Book of the Year: Lydia is dead. From the first sentence of Celeste Ng’s stunning debut, we know that the oldest daughter of the Chinese-American Lee family has died. What follows is a novel that explores alienation, achievement, race, gender, family, and identity--as the police must unravel what has happened to Lydia, the Lee family must uncover the sister and daughter that they hardly knew. There isn’t a false note in this book, and my only concern in describing my profound admiration for Everything I Never Told You is that it might raise unachievable expectations in the reader. But it’s that good. Achingly, precisely, and sensitively written. --Chris Schluep
Ng is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize.
Author Talks About Growing Up in Shaker Heights, Ohio
Library Book Club Pick for February 2015
Amazon Customer Reviews
Everything I Never Told You is a story of secrets, of love, of longing, of lies, of race, of identity, and knowledge. The story begins with the death of Lydia, daughter of Marilyn and James, which is told in the first sentence and slowly revealed through the book. Why she did it drives the narrative, and yet, this story is bigger, grander than this central mystery. Marilyn wanted to defy society's narrow vision of her life and become a doctor, while James is trying to overcome humble beginnings and a society judging him based on his race. Together, they conventions, marry and create a family. Nathan, oldest son on his way to Harvard, Lydia, the middle sister and favorite one, and Hannah, truly growing up invisible. Together, Ng has created a complex, complicated family that rings so true on every page. There isn't a false note in the story.
Perhaps the power of this book lies in the writing of Ng. Her prose is lyrical and light, allowing you to float in the scenes, often between characters, as if you are a literary ghost spying on these people. She moves her story along when it needs to, and allows certain scenes to linger when needed. The effect is magnificent. She also embues the realities of racism, that appropriately jar the reader, which at first seem to be just a "matter of the times" (she painfully uses the word Oriental to describe people) but in reality plays a bigger role in the story. I appreciated it.
By the time you read the final page, you realize Ng has managed to create such a reality, and that when it ends, there is a sense of loss. Much like the family must deal with the loss of Lydia, we must deal with the loss of these imperfect and real people. This book reveals much, about them, about us, about our country, about our society. It is a book that begs for conversation, that begs to be discussed, interpreted, and argued over. It is a book that will be with you for a long time.
The novel, which takes place in the late 70s, begins with Lydia's death. Was it murder? Was it suicide? Or was it something else? The reader spends most of the novel thinking one thing, only to be surprised at the end with the truth. The author delves into the lives of each family member: James, the father, who never felt really at home in any situation; Marilyn, the mother, whose dreams were shelved by the demands of marriage, family, and the times; Nathan, the older brother, whose brilliance is overlooked; Lydia, the golden child burdened with all the frustrated aspirations of her parents; and Hannah, the overlooked afterthought of a child, a silent but keen observer of everyone in her family. (I was torn between imagining the author as Lydia or as Hannah; I suspect she is an amalgam of both.)
Many chapters in this novel focus on just one character, telling the story from his or her point of view. The reader is led to an understanding of just how profoundly even the best intentions can go terribly awry. Once again, we see people living out their own frustrated dreams through their children, who may or may not be on board. The term "helicopter parent" comes to mind, though this idea was not in vogue until the 90s. In addition, issues of race in America and women's roles are explored through the parents, James and Marilyn, who came of age in the 60s and early 70s at the height of the sexual and civil rights revolutions. Even gay identity comes into play, and remember that this novel is set in 1977, not 2014.
I am compelled to praise the writing of this book. Both psychologically astute and poetic, it draws the reader into the story and evokes sympathy and awe. We see the devastating grief that overtakes each member of the family as he or she tries to see why Lydia died and what he or she may have done to prevent it. I also loved the way the author treated memory, that old deceiver, who smoothes out that which we cannot bear to recall.
The plot is a graceful blending of present and past. Page one reveals that sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee is dead, but she comes to life for the reader when Chapter Two asks "How had it begun?" The answer travels back two generations, revealing dreams and disappointments of her parents, grandparents, older brother and younger sister, while also showing the actions and reactions of her family in the aftermath of her death. Each family member has a different thought about what happened to Lydia, and we don't learn the truth until the very end. In this regard, it's a successful mystery. But it's also much more.
Lydia's Chinese father, James, has felt defined by racial stereotypes all his life. Lydia's caucasian mother, Marilyn, has been governed by her own mother's need to maintain proper appearances. The unrealistic expectations James and Marilyn place on their own children have molded Lydia and her siblings, Nathan and Hannah.
The writing is nuanced and gentle. No sledgehammers here--the reader is allowed to knit together the pieces of the individual characters' stories to see a bigger picture. These are people who are trying to do the right thing from their own perspective, and their conflicts come about because they don't realize that situations look completely different to someone else. Although the characters are all flawed, they are presented in a nonjudgmental way that lets the reader care about their struggles and their sincerity. Since different readers will bring different expectations and experiences to the story, it's safe to say the novel will be slightly different for each one.
This story is haunting but it's not a ghost story, even though the main character is dead. Instead, it's haunting in the sense that it stayed with me after I had closed the cover. The beauty of the writing lingered, as did the spirits of the characters.
Readers looking for a lively action-adventure or police-procedural mystery will be disappointed. Those who like a thoughtful, well-written, character-driven novel built around a central mysterious event will enjoy Everything I Never Told You.