In her first novel Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng craftily depicts an atypical Chinese-American family whose motives and dreams are driven by the fears of unaccomplishment and failure. Through a gentle urge that keeps alive the hope for reconciliation, Ng teaches the importance of family. As each character’s carefully planned fantasies are shattered, the determination of familial unity might be their lone route back to reality, and to each other, as each relationship in the developing story centers around the inability to understand one another. Ng wrote this novel to accomplish one specific goal: to uncover and expose the human weakness that we all scramble to restore, no matter the consequences or harm we do to the people we love.
This weakness is the close-minded persistence in achieving the dreams that are left unrealized, in the hope of achieving the unattainable without the inevitable pain and suffering alongside it. James, ostracized for his Chinese ancestry, and Marilyn, crushed from society’s expectations for women, made them both outcasts from their dreams of normalcy and educational pursuits. Their lives further fragment when their beloved daughter, Lydia, is found dead in a nearby lake. The Lee family’s structure crumbles under the weight of this devastating news, and depletes all understanding among family members. The link that Lydia provided broke, and the hope for a complete family is crushed as mother, father, daughter and son each struggle through the loss, alone. When Lydia was young, their mother abruptly left on a journey to achieve her dream of youth, to complete her education, and lead a life unlike her mother’s.
However, Marilyn’s sudden disappearance and failures at her second chance caused Lydia to wonder how everything could change, “in just one day, how someone she loved so dearly could be there one minute, and the next minute: gone” (101). Marilyn’s persistence and grip with the past leads her to quickly repeat her mother’s mistakes and begins to control Lydia’s life, trying to turn Lydia’s life around and help her become who she isn’t. To her parents, Lydia represents their younger selves, and solely for her Caucasian resemblance, Lydia is invested in wholly despite her two siblings’ initial pleads for attention. Nathan, her brother, is torn from the family and is unsupported in his dream of becoming an astronaut, while Hannah hardly exists as a forgotten child and becomes the bystander in the family’s dangerous downward spiral. Celeste Ng carefully examines the inner workings of the Lee family and presents her details with precision, yet does not conclude her novel with decisiveness or conclusion.
While Lydia met her fate through death, her family’s fates are similar in representing the death of their dreams and the rebirth of resilience. As the family looks to heal its weakness of the close-minded persistence in achieving the dreams that are left unrealized, each character is left to the reader’s mind to fulfill the promise of renewal.