After our November book club discussion, we combed Amazon and goodreads, and Google for the next book. Having just completed The Martian, which was so cool, we searched for a change in tenor and theme. And then Mac found this little title, faintly familiar to but unread by any of us. I think we were sold by the stars and reviews. A month later, we reconvened, emotionally disheveled, trying to make sense of the fragments, full of questions and swimming in empathy.
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng’s debut novel, details the events leading up to and the emotional fallout following the loss of a child. In a narrative that floats from past to present and between perspectives, we learn about the Lee’s origins, their ambitions, their passions, and their conflicts. We suffer their failures. This is a novel about identity, self-realization, and projection. But it’s also about what happens when our cultural baggage impedes communication.
Festering at this novel’s depths is a clash of cultures. James Lee, a Chinese American of immigrant parents who studies and teaches about the Cowboy in the American West, would ironically whitewash his history if it would improve his assimilation. He may admire him, but he is not the maverick resolved to brave new frontiers. His wife Marilyn resists the “Betty Crocker” stereotype that is expected of women in the mid-twentieth century. A Midwestern girl, she is intelligent, agile, loves science, and craves a professional trajectory. Both strive to forge a path that deviates starkly from their upbringing; Lee tries to strip the label of “other,” while Marilyn, in defying gender roles, wants to embrace it. Theirs is a marriage based both on love and agendas. In James, Marilyn sees an intellectual who will support her; in Marilyn, James sees an opportunity to create the all-American family. As with so many of us engaged in all manner of relationships, the couple had no substantive lines of communication. Communication is inherently tough, but their lines suffered extra obstructions. They circumvented the issues, they fixated on superficialities, and they obfuscated their real motivations. They ran away from problems, they sought superficial relief, they projected desires, and they deepened the chasm. Marilyn married a conformist, and James married a cowgirl.
The paralyzing silences and the clashes that ensue result in familial dysfunction that is both physically damaging and emotionally devastating—to reader and characters. As usual, the children—Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah—are the innocent victims. They are second chances, on whom the parents project their ideals and unrealized goals. Ironically, because of the parental projections, the kids suffer the same identity crises; they are destined to repeat the paths of their parents, tumbling towards lives dictated by external forces. The death of a child isn’t the point of the novel; it is the conduit that Ng uses to explore what happens to us when we don’t communicate.
Ng deftly negotiates history, family, and desire in this elegant and sweeping novel. But when I put it down, I felt a visceral appreciation for the impact of culture. Our roots, our forebears and their stories, are an active part of our identities, which are the sum of so many forces—nature and nurture working in concert. We bring our cultural baggage to every aspect of our lives. Whether or not it manifests depends on a host of factors. But we are inextricably bound to culture. We can push it off—resist its call, but that doesn’t deny its presence. It doesn’t have to be the definitive aspect of our identities, but we cannot dispute that it is certainly a mitigating factor in who we will become.
Culture clashes normally result from poor communication. We fail to articulate our identities, and we are reticent to listen to others, to respect their right to be different. We see it when religions clash, in political shouting matches, in geopolitical conflicts, in social media rants and the comments sections of charged articles. We see it in our homes, when we choose to share our lives with another who has never hear our full story. James loved Marilyn’s mind but didn’t know her dreams. She was a means to his inclusion end. Marilyn loved James, but she couldn’t have anticipated the life that they would lead would recreate the gender-role she sought to flee. He married that rebellious, highly driven cowboy of his studies, and she married someone who saw stability in the Betty Crocker cookbook on the shelf. Her mother never blessed their marriage for cultural reasons, but she would have praised the life he gave her daughter; she became mother, wife, and homemaker.
In the end, ironically, it’s the children in the story that make all of the difference. Our young people remind us that life can be neither a completely individualistic endeavor nor one in which we fall into generic molds. We must suspend our own interests for just enough time to listen to each other. Our DNA may be essentially the same, but our superficial differences determine our dreams. This little meditation, set in a family’s inner sanctum and involving a horrific tragedy, is a remarkable metaphor for the calamities of harboring our true selves and possibilities that await when we let the ships sail.
Global Initiative Director
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