I find myself thinking about the life partner. I try to avoid biography, and bringing in people into these posts who did not volunteer for such a job, but it still turns over in my mind. The life partner is one of the the most thoughtful, intelligent, people I know – and had a deep education in the humanities. She is also a wonderful, thoughtful mother to the children, and this latter vocation has been the full time gig. There were sound reasons for doing so (aren’t there always), but it is hard not to think of opportunity costs, dreams deferred. It is not like this has not been discussed and resolved – including assurances that this life is working out well. (even while staring at the Pollock installation our son left on his high chair) But when (for whatever reason), I am inspired to brood, things like this pop up.
The children also come to mind. They are too young to have Dreams, and Ideas, and Hopes yet. But it is not hard to see the future – and hope we don’t push them away, or project some of my own dreams and insecurities onto them. A bit of this is inevitable I guess – they have to live with me all the time – but that does not mean I don’t fret. Now these sorts of thoughts do not happen often – but every so often something can stir that up.
Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You is one of those sorts of stories, an autopsy of a tragedy, and how a family is torn apart. The people here are James and Marilyn Lee, a biracial couple who live in Ohio in 1977, raising three children (Nath, Lydia and Hannah). On the surface, things are well. Nath is going to Harvard, Lydia, 15 is fawned over by her parents (and the siblings are not unaware) and Hannah seems pleasant enough. (this sounds like she’s not as present – which happens a lot) Mom is a housewife, and Dad is a professor of American Studies at the local university. When we happen upon the family, we are told that nobody can find Lydia . It seems innocuous enough, but she is gone for too long. The family gets worried as the hours turns into days – they report her missing. And then, suddenly, the local police officer comes to ask them about whether she boated on the lake. James tells them no, that Lydia did not know how to swim. But why would the police ask that?
Lydia’s death floors her parents. She seemed so happy, and popular. She was on the way to medical school! She had everything to live for. The family frantically is trying to figure out what happened. Nath noticed she hung out with Jack from the neighborhood. Jack knew a lot of girls – he looks like trouble. The police are not getting anywhere with leads – and it seems that not many people had talked to Lydia much lately.
Now in a sense, the book proceeds trying to figure out what happened on the lake – but the way Ng presents it, we know, certainly before James and Marilyn do. But where it really shines is as it goes back in time – all the way back to where James and Marilyn met. Both of them are outsiders, separately and together. James is Chinese-American, son of immigrants who lied and snuck into jobs (the way Asian-Americans had to back in the post-war era) determined to make a life for their child. His father got a custodian job at a boarding school because he read that employees children could attend for free if they qualified. James was the Asian in a whitebread boarding school, a poor kid among the very definition of entitlement. James would excel and then go to Harvard and face the same thing. Indeed it was there as a grad student that he would meet Marilyn, who went to Radcliffe, wanting to become a doctor. She was fighting, determined to excel is a very very male discipline, and raised by a single mother, a home-ec teacher who never left the house without gloves and studied the Betty Crocker cookbook intently to be able to cook ably for her man. The two fell in love, perhaps seeing comfort in a fellow outsider – life goes on and when Marilyn gets pregnant, the medical careers gets scuttled to begin life as a mom and housewife.
We see the challenges they face from the start in their own pursuits, and then as an interracial couple in the pre-Loving late 1950s. Marilyn’s mother at the wedding expresses the sort of sentiment we suspected she had all along about this “Oriental” that Marilyn chose for life. Ng in particular shows the hurt – and how these incidents shape everything. For instance, Marilyn’s mother confronts Marilyn – and obviously the exchange is unpleasant, and so Marilyn would never speak to her again. Could there have been closure if somebody softened up over time? But also, Marilyn thought the incident occurred out of earshot – but as it turns out, James and the wedding group could hear most everything. What did he think of it? How did that sort of snippet of conversation impact how he felt about the whole deal?
The misunderstandings are everywhere. We see Marilyn’s ambitions to do something in science, and we also see James desperately afraid of losing status when peers think she HAS to work for them to make ends meet. We see it in the chain of events that are spawned by Marilyn wanting to go back to school. It’s there with the kids when Nath meets Jack for the first time at the swimming pool, or in Hannah’s habit of taking things. What Ng does is show each of these misunderstandings – words not said, people not leveling – and how the imperfect knowledge would impact how people though of everything forward. When we finally get to the scene where Lydia gets on the boat and looks into the lake – it’s hard to see how any of these specific characters in that time and place, could have prevented it from happening.
The effect is an emotional plane crash viewed in slow motion from all sides – in a third person omniscient PoV which takes some getting used to (it felt like there was a lot of foreshadowing, perhaps too much). When a death occurs, the first instinct is to try to assign blame. If it is a homicide, who was the killer – in other cases, how did the fire get started, why was she so miserable, etc. What Ng does so heartbreakingly here is to get close to all of the principals – who all act perfectly reasonably and decently – and show clearly how it all went so wrong, and how the family can possibly bounce back. The book ends on a tentatively hopeful with the family looking like they might be okay – at least trying – but Ng does not seem certain it will all be fine, and neither do we.