Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Publishing Details: Penguin Books, June 2014
Back-of-the-Book Summary: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives to understand one another.
I was cleaning out the baskets of books at my parents house when I stumbled upon Everything I Never Told You. It passed the first page test (I start reading the first page and if I end up on page four before I realize I’m not on the first page anymore, I know I’m hooked), so I took it home with me. I read it in less than a week, and while I want to say that I’m slowly returning to my voracious pre-college reading speed, I think the credit really goes to Celeste Ng. I know it’s a cliché, but I seriously couldn’t put it down. I read it during meals, while exercising, and in every other spare moment of my day.
What I Liked:
My absolute favorite thing about this book is the writing style. Ng has a way of writing that sounds both objective and poetic at the same time—like the mind. Each character is given space for their minds to unravel on the page, giving the reader access to secrets that the characters don’t even realize they’re keeping. When I read fiction, I can’t help but be drawn to the people in the story more than the story itself, and Ng has crafted fully-formed, conflicted, human characters for me to delve into completely.
Honestly, that would have been enough for me. I would have appreciated this book if it was just a collection of stories about this particular family so rife with secrets, but Ng does more than that. The story itself in Everything I Never Told You is compelling in the way only real life can be. There are secrets that unfold in heartbreaking, infuriating ways, but there are also mundane cruelties and mistakes that we all make, but maybe don’t think about enough. As the book progresses, we witness secrets that shape identities and secrets that may be the answer to what happened to Lydia. “May” being the key word though. Ng lures you into a false sense of security over and over, letting you believe you’ve solved the mystery, only to present a new clue that shatters the puzzle all over again.
Finally, Everything I Never Told You is an amazing exploration and presentation of how race and gender shape experience. She details the pressures that go unsaid but are always there, the intersection of identities and how their whole is greater than the sum of their parts, the differences between discrimination against different groups, the desire to forget about race and gender, made impossible by American society in the 70s, and the ways in which America’s outlook on race and gender has improved and the ways it’s remained stagnant. Race is not an important factor in the book, it is woven throughout the book so that the story wouldn’t exist without it.
What I Disliked:
Overall, I loved Everything I Never Told You. I’m giving it 5 stars because regardless of any flaws, it is an impeccably written book and I worry that my qualms with it speak more to my own personal hangups rather than the book itself. That being said, there was one problem that kept nagging at me as I read. These reviews are spoiler-free, so rest assured that this information becomes very clear in the first chapter or two. My biggest issue with this book concerns the central mystery: did Lydia kill herself or not?
Ng in no way romanticizes the idea of Lydia committing suicide, but there is something about centering your primary intrigue on the possibility of suicide that rubs me the wrong way. Suicide-baiting, you could call it. We are drawn to the dark mysteries of the mind, and that’s natural, but as a mentally ill person, it can feel a bit like being ogled in a zoo when books make mental illness or suicide into a titillating mystery. Granted, Ng does so much more than that. Like I said, this is an amazing book that illuminates all facets of family life, identity, race, and gender, so suicide is not really the heart of the book, but it is at the heart of the central question of what happened to Lydia, and that feels a bit exploitative to me.
You Might Like This Book If…
- …you like mysteries
- …you have some secrets of your own
- …you don’t always feel understood by your family
- …you enjoy getting into the minds of your characters
- …you like books that say something meaningful about identity and race and/or gender
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