Everything I Never Told You was a book that SO MANY people recommended to me over the past three years. Why does it take me so long to realize that if countless people are telling me to read a book it must be worth looking into? I had always heard how incredible the story and Ng’s writing were, but somehow this book managed to remain far from the top of my reading list. Everything I Never Told You was the last book I finished in 2017 and I can’t think of a better way to wrap up a full year of reading. Read my thoughts below to see why I highly recommend this thoughtful and gorgeous book.
Synopsis (from Amazon):
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.
“The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you–whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.”
― Celeste Ng,
Celeste Ng has a unique and captivating style of writing in which she fluidly weaves each character’s thoughts and actions into a single moment. It seems like it would be chaotic and confusing, but on the contrary, it somehow made the prose more emotional and alive. Ng flows back and forth between first person and third person, depending on the character’s own knowledge at certain points of the story. The characters recount their memories from their earlier years leading up to young Lydia’s disappearance, and experience and react to the modern day events during and after the moment she vanishes and is found dead.
As you read through the narrative, you begin to understand that each character’s past and identity impacts everything up to the point of the disappearance. From Lydia’s father’s struggle as the only non-white child at a boarding school in the 1950s. He faces culturally accepted (at the time) racial slurs and grapples with always standing out as an Asian-American when all he desires is to fit in. Then there’s Lydia’s mother whose young life’s passion was to become a doctor in a society where young women are expected to find a good husband, have 2.3 children and become the Betty Crocker of their household. Unlike her husband, all she ever wanted was to stand out and be different from the norm. Ng does the most beautiful job unveiling the desperate needs and vulnerabilities of these two people who fell in love, married and had three children of multi-racial identities, while finely conveying how those same needs and vulnerabilities ultimately impact the unstable core of their family structure and their children. Grief and acceptance are the themes that intertwine seamlessly throughout the entire novel.
Ng’s character writing left me feeling flooded with emotion, to the point where I felt my chest flutter throughout the story. The way in which she delicately conceals what each person feels, but reveals a masked and untruthful response during character interactions is frustrating (but in a good way). I absolutely love when a writer can make me react so deeply to their words, even if the reaction is anger and irritation. These emotions significantly humanize the story and the characters. I felt so connected to the story, and its dissection of the family structure along with the desires and pressures of both parents and children. The relationship between and the eccentricities of the siblings were my favorite bits of the novel. As a sibling, I could wholeheartedly relate to that strange and eternal bond you share with a brother or sister, and the shared secrets you keep from your parents.
“He pushed her in. And then he pulled her out. All her life, Lydia would remember one thing. All his life, Nath would remember another.”
― Celeste Ng,
Have you read Everything I Never Told You? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!