Readers will know on page one that something terrible has happened to James and Marilyn's teenage daughter, Lydia. It will be the catalyst that splinters the family to its core and one of several throbbing undercurrents in Celeste Ng's emotionally complex first novel Everything I Never Told You. A Chinese-American family, the Lees stand out for the wrong reasons in their small town of Middlewood, Ohio; there just aren't many biracial families in the 1970s Midwest. With Lydia gone, the family now must reconcile the past with a present that threatens their tenuous ties to each other and to the life they thought they had built.
When James and Marilyn got married they made a pact to let the past drift away. A first-generation Chinese-American, James was used to being the Asian who never fit in. When he meets Marilyn, a pretty white pre-med student, while teaching as a graduate assistant, she represents the acceptance he's been seeking. They marry despite her mother's glaring disapproval. For Marilyn, her dream of attending medical school vanishes when she becomes pregnant. Now, the cultural divide they thought blended away has returned with their daughter's mysterious death. Middle child Lydia was the favorite, the one who would accomplish what they did not: be popular (dad) and grow up to be a doctor (mom). It's a heavy burden, perhaps too much so, not just for Lydia but for the other two Lee children who witness their parents' favoritism. The author, herself a first-generation Asian-American Midwesterner, deftly positions the youngest child Hannah as the astute observer to the family's unraveling and the mystery of her sister's death.
With confident, smooth prose, the Pushcart Prize-winning Ng (pronounced -ing) shifts readers back and forth over time to capture the sympathetic and sometimes frustrating portrait of a family betrayed by cultural expectations and personal loss. Ng's thoughtfully detailed writing and spot-on characterizations carry this literary mystery beyond the solving of a death to what it means to be a family of strangers, hoping to rediscover each other. Jhumpa Lahiri fans will find threads of familiarity in Ng's strong debut.