I feel I must rewrite this post. It’s so dry and reveals little of what I felt while listening to this book. Marilyn and James feel different. Marilyn is proud of this difference. She is not like her Betty Crocker home economics-teaching mother who was abandoned by her husband despite her home arts. She is a scientist, a math whiz. She wants to be a doctor. She scorns her mother’s hopes that she will meet a nice Harvard man while at Radcliffe. James is Asian-American, educated in an east coast private school to which his parents moved and for which his parents worked as janitor and cook so he could receive a free quality education. He has always been different. He is not proud of this difference and is drawn to Marilyn’s blond hair and blue eyes and in her arms finally feels he fits in. Marilyn both thwarts and meets her mother’s expectations by finding an Asian-American Harvard man. Their own expectations are frustrated as she becomes a housewife and mother and he settles for teaching at a second or third tier school in Ohio when he is passed over for a position at Harvard in favor of someone who is a “better fit.” They leave their pasts on the east coast.
This novel is a perfect illustration of how one cannot escape the past. It’s also a terrifying tale of how our own frustrations and failures can come to oppress and suffocate our children, all while we believe ourselves to be working in their best interests and giving them freedom to choose.
When Marilyn’s mother dies she has to confront the past she has tried to bury and it overwhelms her and pushes her to flee from her present. When pregnancy forces her to return she puts all of her hopes and dreams in her daughter, Lydia, whom she wants to have the chance to do everything she did not. Desperate to please her mother, Lydia accedes until she no longer knows who she is or what she wants and is so out of touch with herself that she misjudges her abilities.
James’ shame about his Asian heritage expresses itself in his need for his children to fit in. He encourages and goads but, because he has forsaken the past, does not equip them with the tools to deal with their own misfitness.
Listening to this novel was like watching a train wreck that you fear you are in. Parents are supposed to want the best for their children. They’re supposed to help guide them away from making the mistakes they made. How does a parent know when her efforts for her children have gone from helpful to destructive? Twenty years after they leave home and everyone is tipsy around the dinner table post-Christmas dinner?
Marilyn meets devastation by turning in upon herself. James with the cliche in the arms of another and younger woman. Their children are left to wander alone in their grief and, in fact, to worry over their parents’ creating more devastation.
I wanted to scream at Marilyn. At James. At both. To hug their children.
Then wondered who was seeing my family with clear eyes and wanting to scream at me and hug my children.
How does anyone survive after losing a child? After losing a child to what seems suicide?
How does anyone survive parenthood? And why do we inflict so much pain on the people for whom we would do the most with everything we never say?
This novel is amazing and painful and absolutely hypnotic. Read it. Listen to it. Repeat.
Celeste Ng begins with a disappearance and ends with discovery. In between she peels back the layers of complexity that make up a family, friends, lovers and pulls apart the weave of past, present, and future. It’s an ordinary morning as Marilyn Lee gets her family out the door–Nathan, about to graduate from high school, Hannah, the youngest and quietest of her children, her history professor husband, James– until the Lees discover that sixteen-year-old Lydia is missing. Her body is discovered at the bottom of the lake near the Lees’ home and Ng begins yo-yo’ing us through time. Marilyn as a blond-haired, blue-eyed young girl, her father having abandoned her and her mother, her mother responding by becoming the perfect house wife and teaching generations of girls to do the same. Marilyn fighting her mother’s dreams and chasing science and male-dominated visions of success. A young student at Radcliffe taking a history course on the cowboy and meeting a young unexpected Asian-American professor, whose fragility provokes a kiss, then love. That love rejected by family and most of their society and their response to leave the past firmly in the past–or to try–as Marilyn leaves her dreams for love. A move to the homogenous Midwest, where Asian-American faces are painfully different and children feel secure enough to call names and exclude with impunity.
Years later and death calls Marilyn’s mother and that death calls Marilyn to the past she is trying to deny and the future she forsook for love. We all, eventually, become our mothers and Marilyn looks in that mirror and flees to that lost future. That flight changes the future as her family molds to secure her presence. Marilyn replaces her lost future with a promise for her daughter’s future and her daughter promises to do anything to keep her mother happy. Young Nathan is pushed aside and both children are lost in the hopes and disappointments of their parents as young Hannah comes into the world, unplanned, unwanted, and mostly unnoticed.
Everything I Never Told You is painful. As a parent, I want so much for my children–for them to do and for them to avoid. Much of that comes from my own successes and my disappointments. The Lees’ story made me question how my past has shaped my children’s present and future and whether that shaping has been for the good or ill. Gestures like smiles, pats on the head, small gifts become weapons rather than signs of love and self-preservation becomes rejection.
Everything I Never Told You is so powerfully mimetic that the web of struggles, of silences, of unspoken loves made me grieve, and hope, and rage. And then question what I’ve never told and how it may be impacting the people I love as well as those I do not. And then wish everyone had the opportunity to look in its mirror.