Reading “Everything I Never Told You” in Vienna, Austria
The Book: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
“How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers.”
Everything I Never Told You is a book of family dynamics, generational trauma and the fatally conflicting dreams of wanting to fit in and wanting to stand out. The Lees are a Chinese American family who live in Ohio in the 1970s. There’s James, the father of the family who is an American history professor and the only child to his Chinese immigrant parents.
Marilyn, the mother, grows up with only her mother’s presence and has dreams of defying her mom’s dreams and becoming a doctor. Nath is the only son and the middle child of the family who is eager to escape home and head off to Harvard. And Hannah is the youngest, the forgotten one.
Lydia is the eldest and the favorite child—and within the novel’s first sentence we come to learn that she is dead.
Though this is a mystery and crime novel—as the details surrounding Lydia’s death are murky and unclear—the real story is found in the relationships between father and son, mother and daughter, husband and wife, family and community.
This book illustrates the damage that parental expectations can have, especially when it comes to looking to children to fulfill failed dreams. Marilyn never became a doctor and she desperately wants Lydia to follow in her fading footsteps, to have a successful and fulfilling career, to not be reduced to the status of a wife.
In contrast, James grew up as an outcast. He was never popular and he wants nothing more than his children to live the kind of childhood he saw those around him experiencing. He pushes Lydia and Nath the most to fit in and make friends, and often ridicules them as a defense mechanism when he sees his younger self reflected back at him.
As we come to know more about the makeup of the family, it’s clear that the tensions and underlying issues are a result of Marilyn and James’s unresolved feelings. Lydia bore the brunt of the overwhelming expectations while Nath and Hannah faded into the background.
After Lydia’s death, everything unravels. Nath is convinced that the boy across the street is responsible in some way for Lydia’s death while the local newspaper publishes the headline “Children of Mixed Backgrounds Often Struggle to Find Their Place” and the police conclude the case is a suicide.
While we do learn what happened that night from Lydia’s perspective, I didn’t find this unknown to be the driving force of the book. I was more enthralled in each individual’s handling of the aftermath as well as the stories uncovered leading up to the death.
It’s a really brilliant book and I wish I had discovered Celeste Ng sooner. Her ability to create these complex, flawed and realistic characters is amazing, as well as her imagery and attention to detail.
- Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible.
- What about Hannah? They set up her nursery in the bedroom in the attic, where things that were not wanted were kept, and even when she got older, now and then each of them would forget, fleetingly, that she existed— as when Marilyn, laying four plates for dinner one night, did not realize her omission until Hannah reached the table.
- James wants to snatch the words back out of the air, like moths, but they’ve already crawled into his son’s ears: he can see it in Nath’s eyes, which have gone shiny and hard as glass.
- In all their time together, white has been only the color of paper, of snow, of sugar. Chinese—if it is mentioned at all—is a kind of checkers, a kind of fire drill, a kind of takeout, one James doesn’t care for. It did not bear discussion any more than that the sky was up, or that the earth circled the sun.
The Place: Vienna, Austria during Christmas
Vienna was stop number two on my journey. I had to postpone my arrival because the country was in a strict 24/7 lockdown for two weeks. It’s since been lifted, though bars and clubs and things of that sort remain closed.
I had a similar feeling as my first couple of days in Nice. The realization that I was all alone in a foreign country hit me—and rather than longing to return to the U.S.—I longed for the familiarity of Nice. But, again, I’ve come to absolutely love it here.
Stepping outside of any comfort zone is hard, though I would argue that the constant change of location and language and people is one of the bigger comforts to constantly adjust to. I don’t like feeling comfortable, though, and the few days of adjustment are always worth what follows.
I think my biggest worry is always, “Am I going to be completely alone?” I like my independence—and I have my cat—but friends are still important and hard to make when you’re always on the move. I did get lucky again, though, and I have one great friend I’ve spent pretty much my entire time here with.
I came to Vienna during December for the Christmas markets and they certainly didn’t disappoint. Even though there was no snow on the ground, the constant frigid temperatures and glasses of punch and hot cocoa brought about the holiday feel.
I think I still prefer smaller cities, but I love how accessible Vienna is. There’s a metro or bus or train or tram to take you anywhere, usually with no longer than a five minute wait. It’s pretty incredible, coming from the U.S. at least.
So far, I’ve had a great time drinking glühwein, working in the most beautiful cafés, getting up early for a sunrise hike, checking out the national library and just wandering around picturesque parks.
I even had a real Christmas celebration, which I didn’t expect. My friend invited me to a gathering that was essentially full of expats and I had one of the best homemade meals I’ve had in a long time.