Initially reading through Everything I Never Told You, those other players in the great American family drama genre game can quickly come to mind. And not those pseudo-comedic slices of live stories that Parenthood and Grand Canyon were so fantastic at portraying, rather, something much more Americana – the family tragedy. An Ordinary People, or an American Beauty to be slightly more contemporary, where the family bond is decapitated by one destroying event.
That event within Celeste Ng’s book is the death of teenager Lydia Lee. Ng unfolds the mystery surrounding such – was her death a murder? A suicide? Or simply a terrible accident? – while revealing the secrets of the entire Lee family, both personal and, more often than not, trite. The Lees, a typical Chinese-American family living in Ohio in the late 1970s, you see, are not so typical, as Ng presses to expand upon. And she mostly succeeds.
Those initial genre reactions degrade as the Lees, it is realized, are typical. They run through the same fears and desires and stresses of every family, albeit without ready access to SSRIs. That normality that has been promoted to the super-normal becomes super-annoying as the novel digresses into a downward spiral of complaining, whining, and ungratefulness. James, the patriarch and provider, is stuck in a standard job. Marilyn, the Anglo-wife, dreams of being more than a mom. The siblings, all three of them, are normal, and boring, and ignored, and invisible. Everything I Never Told You, builds on the compelling mystery of Lydia’s death on top of all the clichés of a standard drama yet is providential enough not to collapse.
Perhaps the most surprising theme uncovered is that Ng almost wants this mixed-marriage to fail. As if this novel were a thesis on how interracial marriages cannot, and maybe should not, succeed – a theme that when using a 21st Century vantage is most absurd. To her credit, however, she does emphasis the difficulties such a family dynamic would present, especially in 1970s Ohio.
Ng has a pleasant, accepting writing style and plots the story with a progressive pace aptly exploring each personality. Unfortunately, the deeper those characters become, the more vexing they are revealed to be and the easier to ultimately forget. The emphasis of a family tragedy is to grieve when these characters befall a certain fate. Otherwise, all you get is Hamlet. Everything I Never Told You is more akin to a sigh of relief.