Book Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Number of Pages: 304
Date Published: June 26, 2014
Publisher: Celeste Ng
Rating: 5/5 stars
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.
When a long, long time later, he stares down at the silent blue marble of the earth and thinks of his sister, as he will at every important moment of his life. He doesn’t know this yet, but he senses it deep down in his core. So much will happen, he thinks, that I would want to tell you.
I couldn’t renew this book because of its number of reserves, so I had to read it quickly, but nobody warned me it was this good.
Everything I Never Told You is unlike any other book I’ve read. Maybe it’s just that I don’t remember, or maybe it’s because it’s so rare for a book to tell a familiar plot but with the sole advantage of being, in its very core, character-driven.
After reading this book, you will not remember how Lydia died. You will not think about the method she used (if she did kill herself), or the method her killer used, or even the motive that lies behind those actions. You will not care about the mystery. The question “who did it?” will not even cross your mind.
What would I think about then? You might ask. Well, you would think about the Lee Family.
“How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers.”
You would think about the children, their parents, and even their parents’ parents. Believe me, throughout the story, you would gape – gape in disbelief, gape in frustration, gape at how utterly on point this book is especially when it comes to unresolved issues, upbringing, dynamics, and how things unsaid often lead to unfortunate consequences.
“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.
This book narrates perfect (and by perfect I mean complex yet satisfying) portraits of its characters. I saw the event and its aftermath in the eyes of Lydia’s parents- James and Marilyn, Lydia’s siblings – Hannah and Nath, and Lydia herself.
I did not think this would be heartbreaking at all, because the opening sentence had me fooled – “Lydia is dead, but they don’t know this yet.” And so I thought, how in the world would this book make me sad if the protagonist is already dead. If anything, I would devote my thinking to figuring out what ended her life. Oh how wrong I was.
There are a number of themes I found myself relating to – racism, grief, history, and of course, family. I am so amazed at how Ng managed to weave all these complicated themes into the characters’ thoughts rather than pushing and embedding them into the events of the story.
This book is reflective and retrospective, something mildly different from what I call the traditional storytelling type. The transition, whether it be shifting from memory to present time or from one POV to another, is so darn (Yeah I just really have to emphasize this) smooth. Really, I couldn’t put it down even if I wanted to, not because I wanted to know what happened to Lydia, but because I wanted to get to know the characters more and more.
To me this book is faultless, but others may not appreciate the “casual” feeling that the ending gives off. I honestly did not care about the ending anymore as I was halfway through the book. All I wanted was to understand the characters in all their delightful complicatedness, and this book gave me just that. I couldn’t ask for anything more.
Everything I Never Told You highlights important truths that we often overlook – our behaviors are rooted from some specific motive, and our motives are oftentimes grounded on significant experiences. In the end, our experiences shape who are and who we want to be, and maybe in the context of family, who we want our children to be; this last one, when applied to the greatest extent, isn’t exactly bound to produce good results, at least when considering the events in this book.
I’ve said too much, yet I’m still not sure whether all of it is enough to convince you to read this book, so I’ll put in one last effort. Please read this book. It is eye-opening, painful and hopeful, and I would recommend it again and again and again.
Oh, and one last thing. This folks, is one of the most heartbreaking statements I have ever read –
He can guess, but he won’t ever know, not really. What it was like, what she was thinking, everything she’d never told him. Whether she thought he’d failed her, or whether she wanted him to let her go. This, more than anything, makes him feel that she is gone.
Hear that? Yeah, that’s probably the sound of my heart breaking… again.