Everything I Never Told You is the breathtaking debut novel from author Celeste Ng; it’s a haunting portrayal of the unique challenges that mixed-race families face, the roles we assume in our family structures, and the difficulties in reconciling personal wants with familial expectations.
Author: Celeste Ng
Book Title: Everything I Never Told You: A Novel
Genre: Suspense, Asian-American fiction
Length: 297 pages hardback
Publish date: 2014
Publisher: Penguin Press
Dorkproval rating: [Rating:9.5/10]
Favorite Quote: “”If she were a white girl, they’d keep looking.”
A rock plummet into James’ gut. In all their time together, white has been only the color of paper, of snow, of sugar. Chinese–if it is mentioned at all–is a kind of checkers, a kind of fire drill, a kind of takeout, one James doesn’t care for…Now, when Marilyn says this–If she were a white girl–it proves what James has feared all along. That inside, all along, she’d labeled everything. White and not white. That this thing makes all the difference in the world.”
When I was younger, my father used to good-naturedly tease me about constantly rereading my favorite books. To me, reading a book for the first time was like beginning a scavenger hunt, and reaching its conclusion was collecting the prize. Afterwards, I’d feel compelled to further dismantle the hints that led me in each direction and study the brilliance over and over. I found new clues, pieces of information that I’d previously glossed over, and the scenes became vibrant as they grew more familiar with each read-through. I’d skip forward to the parts that made my chest seize and my eyes well.
As I grew older, it became rare that a novel would strike me as a puzzle enough for me to read it multiple times. The sprawling afternoons and idle weekends of my childhood were replaced with forty-plus-hour work weeks and too-short weekends that bulged at the seams with activity. Unless there was something I’d blatantly missed or that didn’t add up, I’d rarely reopen a book after finishing it.
This is my long-winded way of emphasizing just how much I cannot wait to read Everything I Never Told You again. If I wasn’t already in the middle of two other books, I might have flipped back to page 1 immediately.
Everything I Never Told You is the breathtaking debut novel from Celeste Ng; it’s a haunting portrayal of the unique challenges that mixed-race families face, the roles we assume in our family structures, and the difficulties in reconciling personal wants with familial expectations. It touches on the awkwardness — nay, impossibility — of youth, the innocent assumptions we make about one another and their potentially damaging ramifications, and the subtle ways we communicate both within and outside of our nuclear families.
The novel begins with a punch, disclosing to readers, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know that yet.”
Everything I Never Told You takes place in a small Ohio town in the 1970s, and Lydia is the newly sixteen-year-old daughter of James and Marilyn Lee. James is a first-generation Chinese-American, who grew up as the lone Asian student in a prestigious academic environment, during a time when America’s melting pot seemed to only boil over for different shades of Caucasian, and all else were disregarded, unwanted. Still, he beats the odds and unexpectedly woos the fair-skinned, honey-locked Marilyn, and in doing so, captures his American dream. As they settle into marriage and begin having children, he vows that they will not suffer as he did. With the help of Marilyn’s DNA, his children will be confident, popular, preening.
Marilyn was pursuing her undergraduate degree and planning for medical school when she met James. Unlike most of her female classmates at Radcliffe, she was not interested in attending college to find a husband. She had ambitions of becoming a doctor, but as it tends to do when we’re least expecting it, life got in the way. Marilyn loves her husband and children, and although she never pictured herself a stay-at-home wife and mother, she tacitly accepts her fate and instead becomes adamant about empowering her eldest daughter.
To her parents, Lydia is perfect. Marilyn encourages her aptitude for science, forbids her from dating and distractions, ultimately drowning Lydia in the expectations she once had for herself. Though Lydia is only one of two Asian students at her high school, the other being her brother Nath, James knows this will not deter her from making friends and fitting in in all the ways he’d never been able to.
Lydia has two siblings: her older brother Nath, a senior in high school and soon to be Harvard undergrad, and Hannah, still in grade school, the shy, semi-transparent youngest child who observes too much.
Everything I Never Told You tells the story of how Lydia came to be missing and attempts to solve the mystery of her death. It examines a marriage that is unraveling from, yet at the same time bound by, the things left unsaid. In beautifully descriptive prose Celeste Ng questions whether we have agency in the roles given to us by our families, and whether those roles are pliable or fixed in stone. It is a harrowing account of what can happen when we attempt to be colorblind to ourselves and our histories.
I’d wager that most everyone has felt like an outsider at one point or another. Everything I Never Told You highlights the superficial similarities we find comfort in, — spotting another woman in a classroom full of men, another afro of curls at a headbanging concert — that used to feel even less common. For those who have grown used to being the only brown, Asian, overweight, disabled, etc., person in the room, it will at times feel too familiar, and you’ll long to pull Lydia and her family to the present where, though things aren’t perfect, they’re at least improved.
It’s no wonder this spectacular read ended up on so many Best Of lists at the end of 2014. I cannot remember the last time a debut novel held my attention so completely, with characters that felt so familiar, who would make me forget their fictionality, and even forget the opening lines of the book, wishing for a different outcome. It was with bated breath that I turned the final page, fruitlessly holding out hope that Lydia would have the opportunity to say all of the things she never dared tell.