Title: Everything I Never Told You
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Date: June 26, 2014
Genre: Adult Contemporary, Diversity
Rating: 5 Stars
Dear fellow Babblers,
Everything I Never Told You is the debut novel of Celeste Ng. It is gripping and broke my heart from the first page. The more I read the harder I found it to continue. The pain and wrenching knots that gathered in my heart are the reason I am giving this book five stars.
Reading is about feeling and becoming part of the world of the characters and finding oneself part of the events of the story as they are unfolding. I felt as though I existed and that my tears actually mattered in this book. Heartbreak, trauma and broken love, home and trust bring this murder mystery together, to which I found myself a bound soul and outcast all at the same time.
I was drifting between each of the characters minds and went back and forth between narrative time, myself coming closer and closer to solving the mystery that turns over and results in a collapsing, yet already fractured mixed-raced family: who, if anyone, is responsible for Lydia’s death… ?
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.
James is a Chinese-American, being raised in the 70’s by immigrant parents, both whom struggled to work to make sure James would have the opportunities in life that they never could because of the color of their hair, texture of their skin, shape of their eyes and sharpness of their tongue.
James grows up only wanting to eat with the other children, master the sports the other children took part in so effortlessly and attend the same birthday parties as everyone else in his school. But of course, his origins prevent such simple dreams from being realized.
And then there’s Marilyn: an average girl next door whose golden hair and blue eyes camouflage her perfectly alongside the rest of the students in her class. Her mom is the home economics teacher at her school and expects for Marilyn to find a husband and settle into life at home with a Betty Crocker cookbook, and needle and thread to replace the white doctor coat and beaker of chemicals that Marilyn longs for. Marilyn is determined not to be morphed into the picture perfect cookie-cutter mommy that her own mother raises her to be. She sticks to her books and dreams instead of to dates and pretty dresses and shiny lip gloss. Meanwhile, all James wants is to fit in but no matter what car he drives, jokes he practices to effortless perfection or diet he follows alongside his dormitory buddies, he knows his Chinese origins will never allow it.
When Marilyn and James’ paths cross Marilyn’s dreams loosen out of her reach and James’ become all the more possible, yet all the same, impossible. Marilyn falls in love and becomes just who her mother wanted: a stay at home mom cutting the crust off of peanut butter sandwiches. James has the wife of his dreams and now a family to look after. Everything is just as if should be. Everything but race. It is Marilyn’s mom who highlights this. The very day of Marilyn’s wedding she tells her daughter that she will regret this decision to marry a man of different color than herself. This is the last day Marilyn would ever see her mother and from that point on, the subject of race was to be a taboo tucked in the back of Marilyn and James’ mind, there, but not.
Both Marilyn and James take a special interest in their middle daughter, Lydia, and superimpose all of their lost aspirations and hopes on her. Marilyn fills Lydia’s world with physics books and postcards of Einstein, while her father urges her to go to school formals and wear the latest fashions, just like all the other girls in her class are. In the beginning pleasing her parents is easy. Lydia only wants to see them happy so she remains acquiescent and puts her own desires aside. However, as she grows older the world becomes increasingly harder to understand as Lydia feels the efforts on her shoulders to keep her family together. She looks to her older brother, Nath for constant reassurance as well as her younger sister, Hannah for her simple, yet affective presence.
Lydia, Nath as well as silent and observant Hannah all suffer in the midst of their loving parents, all wanting no more than to feel love without strings attached. All attention is directed towards Lydia. Nath turns away and continues to dream of the day he will go away to school and finally travel to space. Hannah appeases herself with tucking herself under the table, and observing the broken happiness unraveling in her family. It is apparent from the very start that this family is broken beyond repair. The strings holding the family together is Lydia, but Lydia herself is on her way to losing herself. It is the little, the little things all added up from her Lydia’s fear of shattering her mother’s dreams, to her suspicion of her father’s secretary, to her attachment to Nath and her newfound friendship with Jack that become too much to keep Lydia afloat any longer. So was it suicide, foul play or deliberate murder that drove Lydia underwater ?
This book is told in a series of flashbacks all centering around what could have evoked Lydia’s death. Being told in the third person we hear the voice and enter into the mind of each member of Lydia’s family. At some points I felt as though I was reading diaries of each of the characters and others almost as though I were the character themselves – it really was that personal. Every single feeling, memory, thought, disappointment, joy was unfiltered and raw, making me sympathize and understand why each and every one of the characters were how they were – why Marilyn was so hard on Lydia, why Nath hated Jack so, why Hannah rarely spoke, why James felt he should have married a woman for like Louisa.
I often struggled and had to stop reading from time to time not because the book was bad but because it broke my heart the pains and struggles that each character faced and had to confront alone despite the close physical proximity of their family. Each and every layer of the characters were revealed and put up to view alongside the bone-chilling mystery of Lydia’s death.
Everything I Never Told You left me in a dreamy trance and state of wonder as even having turned the last page more than 48 hours ago, my heart is still breaking for the characters and worlds that were shattered in the process of trying to keep love from breaking. This emotional drama is filled with sorrow and mystery focusing the reader on the doubts and suspicions that come with conditional love and what affects such love have on keeping love afloat. With contemporary issues such as race and culture present Everything I Never Told You is a breathtaking novel that will no doubt linger in the reader’s mind and Ng’s words will undeniably burrow into the reader’s soul for a long time after.
(Book image credits go to Goodreads)