26 June 2014

Everything I Never Told You

Summary from Goodreads:
A haunting debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue—in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.

When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened.

A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

The first lines of this debut novel are so eye-catching: "Lydia is dead.  But they don't know this yet."  It just pulls the reader into the world of the Lees, a biracial Chinese-American family in college-town Ohio in the 1970s.  Lydia was her parents' bright star, the fulfillment of all their dreams of success and acceptance.  Nath and Hannah have been shunted aside. Nath's dreams of astronomy and space flight regarded as a passing fancy, Hannah's dreams unformed but she is more observer than observed.

The narrative unspools both forward and backward from this first line in perfectly placed words.  James and Marilyn break the racial lines (and possibly an ethical line which is echoed later in the book) by first falling in love, then marrying.  James gains a professorship teaching about the representation of the "cowboy" in American culture.  Marilyn gives up her academic dreams to become a mother.   Lydia carefully crafted the image of the perfect daughter - popular, brilliant, and successful - and it became her cage.  Nath is accepted to Harvard yet still yearns for the approval from his parents; his frustration is unleashed on bad-boy Jack who knows more than he is letting on about Lydia's death.  Hannah hoards the little items pilfered from each family member that together tell a much different story than what her family thinks they each know.

This is the heart of the novel: the secrets and lies, everything that went unspoken and wrongly assumed.  The Lees are so busy being the perfect American family they never actually listen or see each other as imperfect humans.  Race as an issue is suppressed within the family but it haunts each member.  James's students walked out of his lecture at the realization he is Chinese no matter that he turned his back on his culture in an effort to fit into white America, the children are taunted at the local pool (the Marco Polo scene is heartbreaking), and James and Marilyn themselves never discuss how to deal with racists.  Gender issues are also largely ignored.  When Marilyn attempts to work part-time as a research assistant, which is possible given her chemistry background, James worries that it will look bad for his tenure application. Marilyn later breaks and leaves her family in an attempt to finish her degree but when she returns there is no acknowledgement that she needs an intellectual outlet.  Everything, all the hopes and dreams, are transferred to Lydia. Lock, stock, and barrel.  Even though Ng set Everything I Never Told You in 1977 it is so relevant to today with the pressure on students to be perfect, the gender imbalance in STEM subjects, and the racial issues that divide America to this day.

Everything I Never Told You is available on June 26 - which is today!  Definitely a recommended buy.  Take it with you on vacation, the beach, between innings at ballgames, everywhere.

Dear FTC: I received an ARC of this book from the publisher via a Goodreads Giveaway.

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