“Lydia is dead. They just don’t know it yet.
So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue-in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party. When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family-Hannah-who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened. A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another”
Photo credit: Kevin Day
“Can we ever really understand our children? Our parents? I want the answer to be yes.” — Celeste Ng in Omnivoracious
Celeste Ng—pronounced “ing”—was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and moved just before she turned ten to Shaker Heights, Ohio—both areas that had few Asian Americans. “In my elementary school,” said Ng, “I was the only Asian girl and one of only two non-white students” (Omnivoracious). Ng’s parents moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong in the late 1960s. Her father, who passed away in 2004, was a physicist for NASA; her mother was a chemist who taught at Cleveland State University. As a child, Ng was an avid reader—one of her favorite books growing up was Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy—and had dreams of being an astronaut. “I was the (much) youngest child and spent a lot of time listening in on conversations, trying to piece together the lives of my elders,” she told One Story. “I collected objects that were unwanted by others but that were deeply significant, almost totems, to me. In fact, I still do. And as a kid I loved finding cozy nooks to hide in—under tables, on window seats behind the curtains, in closets.”
Ng’s parents had high expectations when it came to academics. “If I brought home an A, they were like, ‘Well, great! Next time maybe you should try and work harder and get an A-plus,’” Ng told Kirkus Reviews. “Whether that shaped my personality or just matched my goody-two-shoes, overachiever personality, I don’t know.” They were supportive of her decision to pursue the arts, which were vibrant in her progressive community of Ohio. Ng was coeditor of her school’s literary magazine and wrote a play in her senior year that was produced at a local theater as part of a kids’ playwriting festival. “I didn’t realize until after I left what an unusual place [Shaker Heights] is,” said Ng, describing aspects of her public high school that include creative writing courses, a theater program, and a planetarium. Growing up there “made me conscious of race, in the best possible way. I was part of the Student Group on Race Relations for three years in high school, where we visited elementary school classrooms to talk about things like discrimination and stereotyping” (cleveland.com).
Though Shaker Heights had few Asian American families, it was racially diverse compared to most other American towns, which is why her parents chose to live there. “My family celebrated Chinese holidays and ate Chinese food, but we also went to Wendy’s (my dad’s favorite), watched Disney movies and had cookouts on July 4th,” she said. “Straddling two cultures is strange. I was often acutely conscious of being Chinese, but when I went to San Francisco or Hong Kong, I was acutely conscious of how un-Chinese I was. That’s partly why I’m interested in writing about outsiders” (Shelf Awareness).
Ng attended Harvard University and earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. She is a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellow, served as blog editor for the website Fiction Writers Review for three years, and has taught writing classes at Grub Street, a literary center in Boston near where she lives with her husband and young son in Cambridge, MA. Ng gave birth to her son while she was revising her manuscript that would become her first novel, Everything I Never Told You (Penguin Press, 2014). Motherhood “made revising the scenes where [the parents] grieve their daughter very painful to write, much more than I’d expected,” she told Fiction Writers Review. “I would sometimes write at night and then sneak into my son’s room to hug him and just watch him breathe for a while.” Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin), was published in 2017 and quickly became a New York Times bestseller. It was Amazon’s #2 best book and best fiction book of 2017, winner of the Goodreads Readers’ Choice Award 2017 in Fiction, and was named the best book of the year by over 25 publications.
Ng has always loved writing, but not until after graduate school did she fathom that it was something she could do professionally. The only way she could get through writing the first draft of Everything I Never Told You was to tell herself that no one would ever read it (Omnivoracious). “It’s a little like dancing around like a nut in your apartment and then realizing the curtains are open and people are watching: oh my god, people can see me!” (Fiction Writers Review). Writes The Independent (Ireland), “Let’s hope Ng decides to tell us another story again soon.”