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Wednesday October 01, 2014
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Everything I Never Told You

 

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town somewhere in northern Ohio. None of the townspeople even attempts to disguise prejudice or simple ethnic ignorance. Much of the intellectual weight of this deeply moving novel comes from Ng's clear-eyed exploration of the shaping force of her characters' ethnicity, but it's also an unforgiving revelation of the prejudice that surrounds them.

Yet it would be a disservice to this multi-layered novel to understand it only in terms of identity, as important and essential as this theme is for contemporary American writing. Ng opens the novel with two little sentences that bravely and immediately reveal the central moment of the novel: "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet." That sounds a bit like the hook that often opens a murder mystery, and, indeed, Everything I Never Told You can be understood as a kind of murder mystery, although the effort here is not to discover who but why.

Ng's chapters move back and forth between the moment of the story and the background of the couple's life--how they came to this place, and how they learned to live with the expectations and prejudices that shaped them. James, the father of three children (including Lydia, the dead girl), is a professor of American history. His academic specialty is the cowboy; the ironies of a second generation Chinese American scholar studying the cowboy in 1970s Ohio are not lost on him. Marilyn, the mother, is from the South, and has defied all of her own mother's expectations by studying medicine and then marrying an Asian man (Ng, true to the time of her novel, uses the discredited marker "Oriental."). She has sacrificed her own ambitions for her family, only to project them onto her older daughter.

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