Everything I Never Told You is the story of a Chinese-American family and how they try so hard to do well and do good. But first one thing goes wrong and then another and then another, and to protect themselves and each other, they amass secrets that can’t be sustained.
Lovely Lydia, with her silky black Asian hair and her beautiful blue Caucasian eyes is the heart of the story. And we know from the first sentence that Lydia is dead.
Lydia is dead because her grandmother was left without a man in a time and place where a woman was supposed to be a home ec teacher (or nurse or secretary) and have a man. Lydia is dead because her dad is Asian and feels like a misfit in 1977’s Ohio. Lydia is dead because her mother, rebelling against her mother, disappears from the family, leaving them in mortal terror for months.
Lydia is dead because, like most young children, she assumes she is the cause of the family’s misery. She has surely been bad, or at least lacking, and driven their mother away. And so she makes a deal: if her mom comes home, she (Lydia) will be perfect. She will say yes to everything asked of her.
When her mother returns, Lydia accepts the burden of being the perfect child to save the family. Her loving siblings (and the characters in this story really do love each other) know she is faking so many things, but don’t dare tell because they too feel Lydia is the glue that holds the family together with her Chinese hair and American eyes.
Near the end of the story, when too many pressures are building on Lydia (when she is failing not only physics but drivers ed, and she is terrified of her brother Nath’s going away to college), she is forced into an epiphany:
[S]he had been afraid so long, she had forgotten what it was like not to be – afraid that one day, her mother would disappear again, that her father would crumble, that their whole family would collapse once more. . . . Anything her mother wanted, she had promised. As long as she would stay. She had been so afraid.
She connects this fear with the time in childhood she almost drowned and her brother saved her.
His fingers caught hers and right then she had stopped being afraid.
Kick your legs. I’ve got you. Kick.
It had been the same ever since. Don’t let me sink, she had thought as she reached for his hand, and he had promised to not when he took it. This moment, Lydia thought. This is where it all went wrong.
It was not too late. There on the dock, Lydia made a new set of promises, this time to herself. She will begin again. She will tell her mother: enough. She will take down the posters and put away the books. If she fails physics, if she never becomes a doctor, it will be all right. . . . And Nath. She will tell him that it’s all right for him to leave. That she will be fine. . . . And as she made this last promise, Lydia understood what to do. How to start everything over again, from the beginning . . . What she must do to seal her promises . . . Gently she lowered herself into the rowboat and loosed the rope.
The ending is painful but truthful. Families are nurturing; families are damaging. And not everyone survives the damage.
But the ending is also hopeful. The family slowly, gently rebuilds itself without the keystone of Lydia. Years later, when Nath is in space he stares down at the silent blue marble of the earth and thinks of his sister, as he will at every important moment of his life. He doesn’t know this yet, but he senses it deep down at his core. So much will happen, he thinks, that I would want to tell you.
Ng writes with a distinctive technique of exaggerating characters and events – pushing out curves farther than they naturally go, chipping usually smooth edges, and sharpening points almost to invisibility.
For example: James, a slightly-built Chinese man, teaches a college course on the American cowboy. Marilyn, his student, kisses him on the first day of class and beds him not long after. Later, she abandons her family without a word. Lydia has chatty phone conversations with non-existent friends. Loving, insightful little Hanna is so inconsequential they sometimes forget to set a place for her at the dinner table.
These are extreme, stylized images. Like burrs that cling, they won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Ng walks a fine balance with this technique. The distortions have to be strong to claim a lasting hold in the reader’s mind, yet believable enough to be realistic. Otherwise, the reader won’t identify with the characters or care what happens to them.
The book’s cover anticipates this stylized realism. The title, Everything I Never Told You, is handwritten – seemingly with a dried-out brush dipped in ink, or with an iffy-nibbed pen. The writing suggests the person holding the brush or pen is determined to finally tell the true story, as ragged and uneven and tender and unique as it necessarily is. And that we’ll probably remember it.