Celeste Ng's tragic novel on death, racism and family secrets

Author Celeste Ng
Author Celeste Ng
Courtesy Penguin Press photo (c) Kevin Day

In her new novel, "Everything I Never Told You," novelist Celeste Ng quickly plunges readers into the depths of a family tragedy.

Late one night, after the Lee family spends a seemingly normal evening filled with the tiny joys of parents and children, 16-year-old Lydia drowns in a pond near the family home. No one in her family, the author tells her readers, will remember their fleeting moments of happiness.

"Instead they will dissect this last evening for years to come," Ng writes. "What did they miss that they should have seen? What small gesture forgotten might have changed everything? They will pick it down to the bones wondering how this had all gone so wrong, and they will never be sure."

In "Everything I Never Told You" Ng explores misery of losing a child, while also using uses the story to examine the challenges of a mixed family in the Midwest during the 1970s, a time when interracial marriages and their offspring made attracted unwelcome and sometimes hostile attention. She will read from the novel at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Magers and Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis.

Ng said the book grew out of a story her husband told her about a little girl he knew who nearly drowned when she fell in a lake. The story touched Ng because of her own fears of the water, and she began writing about the implications for the family. As she wrote, the story developed and became about a lot more.

"I'm really interested in exploring how the past echoes or reverberates into the present, and the ways that decisions the parents make can influence their children," Ng said in an interview, "and the way that children's actions always cause their parents to reflect back on what they have done in their lives and what they didn't get to do."

In writing the novel, Ng, 33, began drawing on her own background as an Asian-American who grew up in Pittsburgh and in the Shaker Heights, Ohio, area near Cleveland. But she decided to set the story in the 1970s.

"So the father in the family, James, is a Chinese-American and his wife Marilyn is white, and that's a relationship that's become a lot more common nowadays, but at the time, in the 1970s would have been much more unusual and much more striking," Ng said. "And especially in the 50s in the time period when they got married [it] would have been very unusual."

Layered on top of the story are the ambitions of the mother, Marilyn Lee. A talented scientist, she was working towards medical school when she met James. But marriage, children, and a social expectation that she would remain in the home tripped and ended those dreams.

Marilyn deals with her disappointment by working to make sure her daughter Lydia succeeds and becomes a doctor, where she had failed.

"That seemed like a very poignant era to me," Ng said. "For her to see her daughter have a lot of opportunities that for her had maybe now passed."

It never occurs to Marilyn that Lydia's interests may be different. As time passes everyone in the family struggle to accept who they are - and articulate, even to themselves, what is important to them, Ng said.

"I think this tragedy, when Lydia dies, forces her parents to really re-assess and to go, 'what is it that is really important to me? What kind of person am I? What am I going to do with the rest of my life? '"

This plays out against the background of a community which sees the family as outsiders. Ng, who notes it wasn't until the 1990s that a survey found a majority of Americans said they could accept mixed marriages, recalls how at an early reading of the novel someone asked her how she researched the racism in the book.

"I didn't really know how to respond to that," she said. "The sad truth is, I think with one exception, every incident in the book of racial discrimination or just little micro-aggression was something that has happened to me or to friends or to family at some point in our lives."

Ng has been gratified by the warm reception from Asian readers, and how many others have told her the book holds special meaning for them.

"I have also really been touched by the people who don't look like the demographic in the book, who are not in a mixed race marriage, are not Asian, or not minorities in any way and say 'This reminds me of my relationship with my mother,'" she said. "Or someone said 'This is my brother's relationship with our father.'"

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