Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng – 2014 – Contemporary Adult Fiction
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.
My Thoughts: (Mild spoilers)
The story is told from Lydia’s four family members (her parents, brother, and sister) and it is very fluid. I’d have thought each chapter would be told from a certain character’s perspective, but instead each event in the book is told from multiple characters’ perspectives in short periods, which gave me the feeling that Lydia was travelling through their mind in spiritual form seeing glances of how her family were coping with her death. Ng did a great job making the characters feel believable and the feeling of loss was very eminent throughout.
I think it was interesting to read this book as a white person, as it’s a topic I’ve never had to think about. For example, there is a part where the mother, Marilyn, says she doesn’t “kowtow” to the police, and her Chinese husband James gets upset by this because it has connotations for him that Marilyn, a Caucasian, doesn’t really think about – to her it’s just a word. It definitely showed that there are words that as a non-“opressed” person you don’t really consider, but that can be quite offensive in certain contexts.
The time period was also very important to the story. Ng did an interview on BBC World Book Club’s podcast (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/w3cswssf) and she went into great detail on this question, but I do think that if the book had been set in this decade the situation with the family would be very different.
When I bought the book I read the summary and thought it was going to be a thriller. I realised as I looked over Goodreads after purchase that it wasn’t a thriller, but instead a look at how people deal with bereavement and loss. I think if I had read the book still expecting it to be a thriller I’d be a bit disappointed as the book never resolves Lydia’s killer.
One of my favourite parts of the book is the relationship between Nath and Lydia. There is a really sweet part of the book where it describes a three legged race they were once in, and how “[the handkerchief] didn’t loosen… and it didn’t come undone, even when they jerked in opposite directions and tumbled face-forward onto the soft, damp grass.” It’s a great metaphor for how a lot of siblings can go in different directions in life and even have some difficulties, but are still tied together.
Although there is very little plot in this book, I really enjoyed the characters, especially Nath. He wasn’t always likeable but he felt the most real to me and the one I could relate to most. He’s just about to go to university, which is already one of the hardest things a young adult deals with, when this tragedy happens to his sister. I’d have liked to explore his and Jack’s relationship a bit more after the secrets are revealed.
I think my criticism of the book would be that the ending felt a bit rushed. We had this massive build up and desire to know what really happened to Lydia, and then that just never really happened. There were also certain parts of each character’s story that weren’t really finished but I feel that was a stylistic choice by Ng
I gave this book 4/5 on Goodreads. I would definitely recommend this book if you like character studies, but avoid if you need to have a firm plot.