Thirty-five years after its initial publication, psychologist Alice Miller’s “Drama of the Gifted Child” has become a touchstone for a certain kind of seemingly functional childhood — and for a generation of novelists. As one of Meg Wolitzer’s characters summed it up in a haiku in last year’s “The Interestings,” “My parents loved me/narcissistically, alas/and now I am sad.” This is the territory Celeste Ng explores, not quite as succinctly, in her wonderfully moving debut novel, “Everything I Never Told You.”
The basic premise of Miller’s work, at the risk of oversimplifying, is that self-absorbed parents tend to project their unfulfilled needs onto their children. And that sensitive — i.e., gifted — children repress their own desires to placate these unhappy parents. That is certainly the case with Ng’s Lydia Lee. The middle child in a troubled family, Lydia has tried to take on her parents’ unrealized goals as her own.
Forcing herself to study and faking an appetite for the sciences, she accepts that she will become the doctor that her blue-eyed blonde mother did not. At the same time, lonely and depressed, she counterfeits the kind of social life that her father, the awkward son of Chinese immigrants, sees as the apex of American achievement. By her 16th birthday in 1977, the pressure will be too much, and Lydia will be dead.
That’s not a spoiler. “Everything I Never Told You” opens with the line “Lydia is dead.” What this novel concerns itself with is both the back story, showing us how this tragedy came about, and the aftermath, as Lydia’s parents, brother, and sister try to move on. Writing in the third-person, Ng starts with the family’s history, laying the groundwork for Lydia’s death. She then moves seamlessly into the weeks beyond, excelling in her sensitive and detailed portraits of grief — the fatigue and disorientation, shock and anger — as Lydia’s survivors reel and slowly regain their footing.
Somewhat lost in all of this is Lydia herself. From the beginning, we are made to feel the tension in the Lee household, and the triggering crisis arrives with a kind of enervating inevitability.
In the aftermath of her own mother’s death, Lydia’s mother briefly leaves the family to return to school, a desertion misunderstood by Lydia’s father as confirmation of his undesirable otherness. When she returns, Lydia switches immediately into compensatory mode. Her urge to soothe her parents — and keep the family intact — is exquisitely described. “She absorbed her parents’ dreams, quieting the reluctance that bubbled up within,” Ng writes. “Lydia knew what they wanted so desperately, even when they didn’t ask. Every time, it seemed such a small thing to trade for their happiness.”
What we don’t see, until it is too late, is the toll this sacrifice demanded. Perhaps that’s a necessary part of this novel’s structure, a way for Ng to build suspense in a book that reveals the big news in the first line. In such an emotionally precise work, however, this relative silence is a bit jarring. Of course, Lydia was angry. Of course, all that repressed emotion had to go somewhere. “How suffocating to be so loved,” Lydia thinks, near the end. It’s a realization we can understand, but one that hasn’t been as poignantly illustrated as others in this book.
Likewise, her mother’s awakening happens a bit too neatly. “Her daughter wanted more,” she sees, realizing of her daughter’s supposed studiousness. “It had been a lie.”
These are quibbles, perhaps, a sign of this reader wanting more. “Everything I Never Told You” is a beautifully crafted study of dysfunction and grief. Yes, it may miss a few notes, but the ones it does play will resonate with anyone who has ever had a family drama, never mind a gift.