Everything I Never Told You
Families are complicated and sometimes messy. You probably don't need me to tell you that. And I’m sure you don't even need a book to illuminate this basic truth. But when a novel as good as Celeste Ng's debut, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, comes along and explores the intricacies and history of a family in crisis, you just might find yourself thinking about the complexities of family in a new way.
Ng's novel opens in the immediate aftermath of the disappearance of Lydia Lee. The reader knows she's dead --- the narrator tells us so in the very first sentence --- but Lydia's parents and siblings don't yet know that her body lies in the lake near their home in a small college town. Lydia is the apple of her parents' eye, and her brother and sister are both keenly aware of it. But Lydia is harboring her own secrets, her own loneliness and isolation, things that she feels unable to mention to her parents and risk upsetting them or disappointing them.
"[W]hen a novel as good as Celeste Ng's debut, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, comes along and explores the intricacies and history of a family in crisis, you just might find yourself thinking about the complexities of family in a new way."
The Lees are an unusually insular family. It's the 1970s, and people still aren't sure what to make of a Chinese man married to a white woman. Lydia's mother, Marilyn, never saw her own mother again after her marriage to James, and all the members of the family have tolerated taunts or worse, forms of bullying, bigotry and rejection that they seem unable to discuss with each other but that draw them to each other in the absence of other outside relationships. Ng writes perceptively and honestly about the love James and Marilyn share, as well as Marilyn's very real trepidations about being involved with an "Oriental" man --- and one who was her college professor --- when the two first began seeing each other in the 1950s.
Each member of the family struggles with a secret he or she is unable to share with the others, whether it is Marilyn's long-standing regret about choosing marriage and family over medical school or little sister Hannah's knowledge of what happened the night Lydia disappeared. As Lydia's fate becomes painfully clear to all of them, Ng's narrative travels back to the early days of her parents' courtship, as well as to a period when Marilyn herself disappeared for a time. At the end, after we've come to know and at least begin to understand what secrets Lydia's older brother, Nathan, and Lydia herself harbor, we see Lydia's final moments through her eyes, realizing the extent of her self-knowledge and the things she still doesn't understand.
"She hadn't realized how fragile happiness was," Ng writes of Lydia, "how if you were careless, you could knock it over and shatter it." In EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, Ng shows us how a family so desperately wanting to avoid hurting each other actually end up suffering terribly as a result.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 8, 2014
Everything I Never Told You
- Publication Date: June 26, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The
- ISBN-10: 159420571X
- ISBN-13: 9781594205712