Reviewed by Susan O'Keefe
"How had it begun?"
The opening words of chapter two provide a heavy answer with the simple phrase, "Like everything: with mothers and fathers."
Mothers and fathers and their mothers and fathers and their mothers and fathers ... isn't this the answer to most all of life's questions?
In her debut novel "Everything I Never Told You," readers remain divided even after the final page as to whom "I" refers as well as "you." The Lee family is full of oddities and nuances.
Lydia's mother and father married without their parents' blessings. They had tied the knot and agreed to leave everything unpleasant or difficult in the past. Lydia's parents were as different as night and day. They were from different countries and cultures. She wanted to stand out. He wanted to blend in.
The author sets the majority of her story in a small college town in Ohio. It's the 1970s and women are housewives, not medical doctors. It's no secret that Lydia's mom hasn't quite accepted her homemaker destiny. She prefers lab coats and Bunsen burners to Hamburger Helper and homeroom mom. To appease Lydia's father, though, she makes the most of her role while he supports the family on a meager professor's salary at a small community college.
It wasn't his job of choice. He thought the Harvard job was his for the taking. Superiors had implied it. Colleagues had hinted. Was it because of his Chinese-American heritage? In the 1970s, the word diversity had barely dried in the dictionary.
When Marilyn and James Lee arrived and settled in Ohio, they once again vowed to let bygones be bygones, but the past always reveals itself - sometimes in painstaking particulars.
"I just got so pulled in when I realized that Lydia had never written a single word in those journals," said one book club reader.
Why wouldn't a seemingly involved and active teen write in her diaries? Every year, Marilyn had given her oldest daughter and favorite child a diary in which to write about the dreams that would definitely come true. There were dreams of math fairs and science projects. There should be pages of scholarship notes. Where were the doodles of medical school dreams, merits and awards? It seems the dreams for 16-year-old Lydia were just a complicated coverup to keep her mother from running away, from deserting her family again.
"It was such a sad cycle. The mom, Marilyn, was a product of her own mother's shortcomings and her absent father.
"But then, Marilyn duplicated the cycle with her own twisted set of issues," said one reader who confessed to being captivated by the book, but in a sad sort of way.
There was so little communication among the family members. Problems were buried. Frustrations and feelings were smothered. No one expressed themselves. The closest thing to honesty was the parents expressing their pride in Lydia, and how much they wanted her to succeed. It was a classic case of the parents living vicariously through their child.
Lydia was the middle of the three Lee children. Nath, her Harvard-bound older brother, could hardly wait to escape from the land of Lydia. Although the two older siblings shared a unity of disregard and disgust for their parents, there was still a desire to create function out of total dysfunction.
"My favorite character was Hannah, the younger sister. She was always watching, so observant of even the slightest movements. But why was her room was in the attic?" objected another reader.
Hannah was the youngest of the three Lee children. She desperately wanted to please her parents, but usually she blended into the background. As the baby of the family, she was the final straw that broke her mother's dreams of becoming a doctor.
Hannah is the one who noticed a slight attraction between Nath and the high schooler next door. Could that relationship have anything to do with Lydia's death? When the teen is found dead in the local lake, there are dozens of questions for family members and friends. But questioning friends is difficult because there are no friends, much to the chagrin of Lydia's parents.
"Everything I Never Told You" is an emotionally-involved story. From beginning to end, there are valuable lessons in the privilege of parenting and the responsibilities of being parented.
After all, everything begins with mothers and fathers.