I watched an interesting Maroon 5 music video a few weeks ago to the song “Maps.” It opens with Adam Levine bursting into the ER to find his girlfriend being frantically treated for life threatening injuries. The video then goes backwards, scene by scene, letting the viewer witness all events and choices that led up to this horrific conclusion.
In a similar fashion, Celeste Ng’s debut novel (which has gotten mad props in the last year) opens with the following sentence: “Lydia is dead.” What unfolds thereafter is a story of loss and the mystery of how the bright daughter of a Chinese American family disappeared one night, her body later discovered at the bottom of a neighborhood lake. I read The Lovely Bones earlier this year, and there are many striking parallels with Everything I Never Told You: shocking death of daughter, 1970s time period, family grief explored with one parent using an adulterous affair as a coping mechanism, a mother who leaves home unexpectedly to chase a thwarted youth, third person omniscient narration with a tendency toward literary description. The big difference between the two books is that Lovely Bones is solely concerned with the aftermath of Susie’s murder, while Everything I Never Told You is primarily focused on the prelude to Lydia’s death. This places the reader in the uncomfortable position of knowing that everything he or she is reading is leading to a very sad and dark event. I already have a sore spot for stories of deep family dysfunction, particularly where children are neglected or parents project their own youthful ambitions onto them. Knowing here that it was all going to lead to the death of the book’s most likeable character made reading this novel difficult, and I had to take frequent emotional breaks to bear up under the weight.
Celeste Ng has an eye for detail, and she finds a way of uniquely describing some of the story’s most pivotal moments. Here is one of my favorite passages in which Lydia’s jealous older brother Nath pushes her into the lake:
More than this: the second he touched her, he knew that he had misunderstood everything. When his palms hit her shoulders, when the water closed over her head, Lydia had felt relief so great she had sighed in a deep choking lungful. She had staggered so readily, fell so eagerly, that she and Nath both knew: that she felt it, too, this pull she now exerted, and didn't want it. That the weight of everything tilting toward her was too much.”
I can’t say that the story brought that kind of quality from cover to cover. Especially toward the end, the novel seeps into cloying melodrama. I blame Ng’s tendency to wring the emotion from some of her moments and certain instances of awkward, proclamatory dialogue. Although her time period is necessary to strongly establish the issues of gender and racial discrimination, Ng overuses her 70s cultural references. The first couple of name drops were ok, but after a while it becomes a distraction and seems forced. The examples she provides of gender discrimination in Marilyn’s early life are purposefully crude. I can buy that these events happened, but let’s find a way to describe them more organically, fewer broad strokes. As is, they occur in a way that panders to the reader’s sense of injustice and renders the story into a comic book.
Most troubling to me was the portrayal of Lydia’s parents. Though Ng does a nice job of providing background to justify these behaviors (particularly the mother), I kept wondering how two such amazingly bright and sensitive people could be so singlemindedly stupid and insensitive to their children. They become static, unpleasant characters, which simply doesn’t jive with how much time Ng takes to earlier flesh them out as true human beings. This makes the ending feel artificial - a bit of a deus ex machina. I’m guessing the movie will do it twice as terribly, but that’s to be expected. It certainly wasn’t My Sister’s Keeper level of bad, so perhaps I should just count my blessings.