[Review] Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Posted 22 December, 2014 by DLWhite in Reviews, Writers Read 0 Comments

Everything I Never Told You Book Cover Everything I Never Told You
Celeste Ng
Penguin Press

A haunting debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation.
Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet.…
So begins the story in this exquisite debut novel about a Chinese American family living in a small town in 1970s Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother's bright blue eyes and her father's jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue - in Marilyn's case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James' case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.
When Lydia's body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia's older brother, Nathan, is certain the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it's the youngest of the family, Hannah, who observes far more than anyone realizes - and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened.
A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping pause-resister and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another

**Spoilers Be Here**

Everything I Never Told You is a poignant telling of an interracial family set in the 1970’s. It’s about the tragedy of losing a loved one– a child, a favorite child at that, but it’s also about belonging. James is a Chinese man who wants so badly to fit in that he worked to speak without an accent. He read encyclopedias and every book his parents could beg, borrow, or steal. Marilyn, with her blonde hair and blue eyes fits in entirely too well. So well that her mother sent her off to college ostensibly to find a man to marry.

And it’s about the children, who don’t fit in at all, in the intolerant climate of elementary, Jr High and high school. Nath, who is stereotypically brilliant, wants nothing more than to be noticed for his mind, but he can’t get around the family favorite, Lydia. She’s destined to be a doctor (so says her mother– she’s not going to college to find a man, to get caught up in making the perfect egg and cooking a fine meal). Lydia wants to please everyone– her mother, her brother, most especially her father. It’s important to him that his children appear to have a normal American life. So Lydia pretends to be popular and have friends. She carries the facade of the smart Asian kid, but in actuality she’s failing physics and the girls she says she’s close to haven’t spoken to her in years.

Lydia’s life is a lie. The coat of the Family Favorite is heavy; Lydia yearns to shrug it off. One night, out by the lake, though she can’t swim, she intends to do just that.

This book is as much about identity as it is about family tragedy. I especially resonated with Marilyn’s struggles to break out of her ‘pretty housewife’ mold… because as much as she fought it, she was good at cooking meals and taking care of her family. Her desire and attempts to finish college and apply to medical school end in failure. But Lydia… Lydia is her chance to live out that dream. Lydia won’t fail.

James, too is caught between his identity as a Chinese man (he doesn’t want Marilyn to work because it will give the appearance that he can’t support his family) and an American (he teaches US History, primarily Cowboys and Western culture). As the weight of Lydia’s death shatters this family, James finds comfort in a culture he’s tried hard to leave behind.

I didn’t think I would enjoy this book, but I listened to the audio version to and from work for about a week and found myself drawn into the drama of the Lee family. The relationship between Marilyn and James is at once loving and stifling. I enjoyed the forays back to their beginning and pulling the reader forward. Proof that our past shapes our present.

Comments are closed.