Literary mystery about death of young girl has surprising ending

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The opening of Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel, “Everything I Never Told You,” is chilling: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

The fictional literary thriller begins on May 3, 1977, when 16-year-old Lydia Lee goes missing in her small town in Ohio. When her body is found days later at the bottom of the nearby town lake, her family must come to grips with the truth about who Lydia was, and the secrets the family kept from each other and from themselves.

Her brother, Nath, and her sister, Hannah, struggle with who they believe is responsible for Lydia’s death. Is it Jack, a neighbor who attends the same high school and is known for his promiscuous ways? Or did Lydia commit suicide because of the enormous pressure placed upon her to succeed in school and fulfill her mother’s dreams of being a doctor?

The stress of not knowing what happened pulls the family apart and forces the Lees to each deal with their identity. The Lees are a biracial Chinese-American family living in an era when interracial marriages are legal but still unusual. Lydia’s parents, James and Marilyn, each had their own dreams and goals before beginning a family, and Marilyn put her aspirations on hold to become a mother — something she resented. The Lees don’t know how to share their needs and concerns with each other, so there is misplaced anger, jealousy and competition for attention among each family member.

Marilyn had dreams of becoming a doctor, and when that didn’t happen because of her unexpected pregnancy, she forces that dream onto Lydia. It’s clear that Lydia, the middle child, is the favorite of both Marilyn and James, and Lydia struggles internally to live up to her parents’ expectations to be smart and popular.

The book’s title comes from each of the family members’ experience with communication and how the inability to communicate affects them all after Lydia’s death, and all the trivial things left unsaid because they didn’t seem important at the time. Her family recalls their final interaction with her — not knowing it was their last — and what they would have done differently had they known.

Ng’s ability to portray parents and children in a family setting will be relatable and identifiable to those who had a “typical” upbringing (two-parent, middle-class household in suburbia). As she writes in an interview at the end of the book, “Most of us spend our lives either trying to live up to our parents’ ideals or actively rebelling against them.”

Ng’s 2014 book has become a book club favorite and it’s easy to see why — it’s been on my TBR list for that long, as well. Ng packs a lot of heart and discussion into a relatively short read at less than 300 pages for the paperback version. The heartbreaking ending will leave readers wanting to talk about it, wanting to share their family experiences and, hopefully, open the door to tell each other all the things they want to say before it’s too late.