Friday, October 31, 2014

"Everything I Never Told You," by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s novel “Everything I Never Told You” (Penguin, 2014) reminds me yet again of how difficult the issue of race is in America. This seems like an obvious point, but when a story brings the impact of racism -- both overt and covert -- to the fore so powerfully and so sadly, one cannot help but have to face it, and at the same time -- if one has the privilege that goes with being white in this society -- cannot help but have to acknowledge that privilege. The story of the Lee family in the 1960s and 1970s in a small town in the U.S., in which the father is Chinese American and the mother Caucasian-American, and in which their two children are marked by their mixed race, reveals the slights and prejudices the family members encounter practically daily. The children are each the only non-whites in their classes, and although they are successful students, they are always aware of their being “different”; the stares, the clumsy remarks, and the fingers to the outer corners of the eyes are constant reminders. Complicating the story are issues of gender, as we learn how the mother, Marilyn, struggled to fulfill her desire to be a doctor, and all the obstacles she faced; she never achieved that goal. Further, there are the issues of parents’ trying to live out their dreams through their children. Marilyn wants her daughter Lydia to be a great scientist and doctor, and is constantly urging her on. The father, James, wants his children to have a happier life, with more friends and “normal” childhood and adolescent experiences, than he did. Lydia, the middle child, the one with blue eyes, becomes the focal point for the dreams of both parents, although the other two children do not escape the pressures of these dreams. The parents truly love their children, and they cannot simply be classified as “tiger” parents; the situation is much more complex. Then something terrible happens (we find this out very early on, so this is not a spoiler on my part): Lydia disappears and then is found dead. As much as this novel is “about” race and gender and family and society, it is also a very specific, personal story about five particular characters in a particular family in a particular community, and the delicate dynamics among them all. This is a truly wrenching story, yet a riveting one.
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