Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste NgEverything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Published by The Penguin Press on June 26, 2014
Genres: Historical, Mystery
Pages: 297
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
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Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins this debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation. 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’s 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.

As I’ve been looking back over this year’s reading, I’ve found how few adult novels charmed me. Sometimes I find myself wondering if maybe young adult fiction is all that works for me anymore. Then I pick up a book like Everything I Never Told You. Celeste Ng’s debut is quiet, emotional, and heartbreaking, the story of a family’s unraveling.

Everything I Never Told You seems from the blurb to be a simple mystery, the unwinding of how Lydia, beloved daughter of the Lee’s, perished. From the very first sentence, it becomes obvious that there’s more going on in Everything I Never Told You. The first two lines are “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” This reveals that Everything I Never Told You has the no-longer-common omniscient narrator. The narrator drops hints of the future and knows what’s going on within the character’s hearts, even when they themselves do not understand.

The death of Lydia both is and is not at the center of the story. Her death is the focal point, the catalyst for the breaking, but the book is actually more about her family. It’s not even primarily about the way that they deal with the grief of losing Lydia, though that’s certainly a part of it too. Everything I Never Told You primarily deals with the way people’s expectations of one another can poison relationships.

Central to this are the parents, James and Marilyn Lee. The two fell in love when he was the graduate student teaching her course, which she summarily dropped so that they could date. They are, at heart, seeking completely opposite things. Marilyn dreams of being a doctor; she wants to be different and surpass those around her, but ends up a housewife like her mother before her. James, Chinese, has never felt like he fit in among the white faces. All he wants is to belong; Marilyn attracted him by how much she fit in. During their fights, these issues come up again and again, but the two don’t see it. They interpret what the other says through the lens of what upsets them. James thinks that Marilyn regrets making an interracial marriage and James thinks he wishes that he had a more obedient wife.

Everything I Never Told You alternates between the timeline following Lydia’s death and the past, beginning with James and Marilyn’s courtship and going through the day of her death. Such frequent and sustained flashbacks can really kill forward momentum in a novel, but that didn’t happen here at all. I found every character’s story fascinating and was eager to find out what had happened and would happen to each of them.

This book is sad. Monstrously sad. There’s some amount of hope for the future, but pretty much every single character’s story made my heart hurt. They do terrible things and even act out in horribly predictable ways, but they’re all good people at heart, and it just hurt. I’m hanging most of my hope on the gay ship, which I think is canon, but this book is more about the journey through the pain than the better times to come.

Everything I Never Told You is a gorgeous character study of the misunderstandings that crop up between people when they don’t honestly discuss what they want and how the feel.

Favorite Quote:

“Don’t ever smile if you don’t want to.”

Tl;dr – Review in a GIFfy:

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