I was hooked from the very first sentence. “Lydia is dead.”

By Celeste Ng
Year: 2014
Purchase: Buy Now!
Kevin Day Photography

Kevin Day Photography

I am not a fast reader. To my dismay, it can take me several months to finish a book. My intentions are good when I climb into bed with my read, but it never fails. I read a few pages, then drift to sleep. This was not so with Celeste Ng’s book, “Everything I Never Told You.” I devoured it in a weekend. I needed closure so I read hungrily. I was hooked from the very first sentence. “Lydia is dead.”

 It is the story of the Lee family, a mixed-race couple with three teenage children living in small-town Ohio during the 1970s. Although the reader knows in the first chapter that Lydia, a sixteen-year-old honor student, is dead, the mysterious and tragic circumstances surrounding her death continue to leave us with more questions than answers. How did this young girl die? Was it suicide? Did someone want to hurt her? The questions continue pointing us to new conclusions, that at times, can be maddening.

But as the story unfolds, a delicate family balance is revealed which makes the story much richer than just a suspenseful novel. The father, James Lee, is a first generation Chinese American who just wants to fit in and live an idyllic, American life. James is a young teaching assistant at Harvard in the 1960s when he meets Marilyn, a beautiful, driven student, who happens to be white. They fall in love and seem to have a deep connection. They try to convince themselves that their racial differences will not matter until a family member reminds them, that at the time, interracial marriages are still illegal in some states.

Marilyn is an overachiever, who unlike James, wants to stand out. She yearns to be respected for her accomplishments and intellect during an era when such things were more challenging for women. Despite her regrets about leaving a potential career in medicine behind her, Marilyn devotes herself to her family. James and Marilyn Lee suffer through several hardships, face prejudices because of their race or gender, and each endure a soul-searching identity crisis that causes them turn their backs on their families.

And then there is their Lydia: the center of the story and the focus of all their hopes and dreams. She is their middle child, their favorite. Marilyn and James pin all of their dreams on this child. Marilyn encourages Lydia to be confident, self-sufficient and to pursue an ambitious career in medicine. James pushes Lydia to be outgoing and popular with her peers constantly suggesting new friendships for her to pursue. They both push Lydia to achieve the things that they have always longed for in their own lives. Lydia, eager to please, is left with only one ambition in life: to satisfy her parents longings.

Lydia also happens to look more white than the other two mixed-race children in the family. We are left questioning if this is why Marilyn subconsciously feels more drawn to Lydia. And if this is why her father, James, has chosen to focus his dreams of blending in on Lydia, the “whiter” of the three Lee children knowing that this goal would be more attainable for her.

Inconspicuously existing behind Lydia’s shadow are her two siblings. There’s the oldest child, Nathan, who is gentle but awkward and withdrawn. Nathan is not the typical first child; his quiet demeanor goes against our typical expectations of personalities in the family order. Hannah, the youngest child, is a whisper of a girl who is overlooked and seldom heard because her parents have little attention left after placing so much of it on Lydia.

Full disclosure. I’ve known Celeste since she was a girl. She was a close childhood friend of my little sisters. It was difficult to imagine such heaviness and emotion coming out of the mind of that sweet, little girl from Ohio. This is not a light book. Celeste writes with such maturity. It amazed that she was able to so accurately portray these deeply, soulful characters, some who were not only older than her, like in the case of Marilyn and James but who lived in a time before she was even born. The intricacies and depth of the characters and their relationships are what make this story so rich. I’ve heard this book compared to “Gone Girl” which I have also read. While “Gone Girl” was page-turner and made me crave closure, it lacked the depth and beauty of language that Celeste has achieved. Each sentence is beautifully crafted. No wonder took seven years to write.

Here is an excerpt from the book that exemplifies her delicate touch:

“Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling tablecloths, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change.”

Celeste Ng’s fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, to name a few. She is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize. Currently, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband and son. She has received an Honorable Mention from The New York Times; the New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice; is the Winner of the Alex Award and Winner of the APALA Award for Fiction and Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014.

To learn more about her and her work, visit her website at http://celesteng.com


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Author: Heather Zachariah

Former Art Director for Home Magazine, Heather Leahy Zachariah, left her career in publishing after baby number number one. She now works from home as a freelance graphic designer and a chauffeur to her 3 busy kids. "Working on TipsFromTown has been a wonderful outlet for me. It renewed my love of publishing where I can design colorful, enticing pages online and allows me to share the things I love about being a mom." Heather grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a place that still is near and dear to her. " After living in Brooklyn for 18 years and studying Graphic Design at Pratt Institute, she now lives in the Jersey burbs. "I love living so close to NYC, but in my heart, I'm an Ohio girl."