"Cultural issues don't have to be a barrier, but you can't pretend they're not there." — Celeste Ng in HIPPO Reads
In a small town in Ohio in 1977, the oldest daughter and favorite child of a biracial couple — her mother is white, her father is Chinese-American — is found drowned in a lake. As her parents and siblings struggle to solve the mystery of her death, a web of family secrets emerge to reveal how fragile the relationships between husband and wife, parent and child, and brother and sister can be when ambitions are thwarted, societal pressures mount, and fears and desires are kept buried. Celeste Ng's debut novel Everything I Never Told You (Penguin Press, 2014) alternates between past and present and is told from the various perspectives of each grieving member of the family, all of whom come to realize in their own way how little they knew about the people they thought they knew best.
Sixteen-year-old Lydia is the daughter of Marilyn and James Lee. She has her mother's blue eyes and her father's jet-black hair and makes them proud with how effortlessly it seems that she can fulfill the dreams that they were unable to pursue themselves. For Marilyn, the dream is to see her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker. As a young woman in the late 1950s attending college and working toward a medical degree in a predominantly male program, Marilyn felt like an outsider. Marilyn's mother encouraged her to leave school and find a husband, but when Marilyn informed her of her choice to marry a Chinese-American man, her mother disapproved and their relationship deteriorated. Marilyn was later forced to give up her dream of becoming a doctor when she became a mother. For James, the dream is to see Lydia popular at school with a busy social life, something James never experienced himself as a Chinese-American.
When Lydia's body is found in the lake, the delicate balance keeping the Lee family together is destroyed. James, consumed with guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find the responsible party no matter the cost. Lydia's older brother, Nathan—who was close with his sister but is headed off to college with his own dreams of becoming an astronaut—is certain that the neighborhood bad boy, Jack, is somehow involved. But it's the youngest of the Lee family, Hannah, who observes more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened. "Within a family, secrets carry extra weight," Ng told Goodreads. "Part of what drew me to this story was thinking about all the questions the family members would never have answered, and the ways that we often try to reconstruct—or reimagine—those we have lost."
Everything I Never Told You was a New York Times bestseller, Amazon's #1 Best Book of 2014, and named a best book of the year by over a dozen publications. It won the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, the American Library Association's Alex Award, and the Medici Book Club Prize. Rights have been sold to translate the novel into 20 languages. Ng took six years to write it and produced four different drafts of the novel before she sold it to her publisher. The hardest part, she said, was structuring the story. "There's a long bulletin board in my office, and at one point the whole thing was covered in 3x5 cards, all color-coded and laced with string as I tried to work it out" (Fiction Writers Review).
The idea for the novel came in part from an anecdote Ng's husband told her. "When he was a kid, a boy he knew pushed his own little sister into a lake," she told One Story. "She was rescued, but I started wondering what it might have been like for her to plunge underwater, what this brother-sister dynamic might have been like (both before and after), and what would have happened in her family if she hadn't been saved." Ng was also interested in exploring the dysfunction that can befall a family with poor communication. "Sharing a thought with another person is a leap of faith: you have to trust that they'll hear what you're saying," she said. "The bigger the dream or the more pressing the fear, the higher the stakes. Maybe that fear is what makes us hide things from those we love: trying to say something, and having them (of all people) not understand, can be more painful than staying silent" (Shelf Awareness).
Ng chose to set the novel in the 1970s because it was "a time when the issues the Lees wrestle with were all thrown into relief" (Goodreads), including the hardships mothers faced in wanting careers and the lack of acceptance of interracial marriages, which, in 1958 when Marilyn and James married, were still illegal in some states. The Supreme Court struck down interracial marriage bans in 1967 but, according to a Gallup poll, 1997 was the first year that a majority of Americans said that they approved of such marriages. In doing research for the novel, Ng also found a 2001 landmark study by the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations that showed that 68% of US citizens had a negative view of Asian-Americans. "The sad truth," said Ng, "is that with one exception, every example of racial discrimination in the novel is something that's actually happened at some point to me, my family, or others I know personally" (cleveland.com). "My own marriage is interracial," she explains, "so these issues are very much on my mind. As interracial marriages become more common, I hope that attitudes will be very different a generation from now" (HIPPO Reads).