Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

18693763Everything I Never Told You
Celeste Ng
Penguin Press HC June 26, 2014
Pages 304
ISBN 9781594205712
A copy was provided in exchange for an honest review
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A haunting 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 dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins the story of this exquisite debut novel, about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. 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. James, consumed by guilt, sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to find a responsible party, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is certain that the neighborhood bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest of the family—Hannah—who observes far more than anyone realizes and who may be the only one who knows the truth about what happened.

A profoundly moving story of family, history, and the meaning of home, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, exploring the divisions between cultures and the rifts within a family, and uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

Incredible family story

Ng does a masterful job with characterization in Everything I Never Told You. She performs an autopsy on a family, dissecting each member in detail. Amazing job, and I found myself incredibly emotionally invested.

Admittedly this story touched me on a personal level, I am of a ‘mixed’ background so I could understand the challenges Marilyn, James, Nathan and Lydia dealt with, their anguish was very familiar. Referring to challenges I clearly understood the challenges and issues from all angles – person, parent, child. Ng addressed the racial issues in a realistic manner, the setting spanned from 1950’s when James and Marilyn married to the 1970’s the time of Lydia’s death.

“Marilyn realized, suddenly, what her mother was imagining. It was 1958; in Virginia, in half the country, their wedding would break the law.”

As I read this story my radar as a parent kicked in – forcing me to question How well do I know my own son? Obviously the Lee’s were clueless, instead they only saw and knew what suited them. There were so many unresolved issues in this family, Lydia’s death was the cusp of how troubled this family was, individually and collectively.

“But Mom, I don’t have any secrets. At the time Marilyn had laughed. What secrets could a daughter keep from her mother, anyway?”

Tragedy unites or divides. With the Lee’s it divided, issues resurfaced, the breakdown started spiraling out of control, verbal barbs were tossed like hand grenades. Words left unspoken, words misunderstood, each family member dealt with this tragedy alone, and it was agonizing to read. Communication all but ceased emotions ran high.

I felt for the children Nathan, Lydia and Hannah. You find they were caught in the eye of the storm of their parents. Nathan to be recognized but failing James’s expectations. Lydia the golden child of both parents, suffocated by both and Hannah basically treated as an afterthought when not completely ignored. Let’s not forget the parents – James, always feeling like the outcast, friendless, seeking acceptance but falling short. Marilyn, resentful, forcing her dreams on her children, unemotional. Yep, and we wonder why the children are unhappy and tormented inside emotionally and mentally.

This story depicts the battle to understand one another, to listen as opposed to hearing, to see what’s in front of you rather than what you imagine is in front of you, to think before you speak, to love before it’s too late, to address the past and let it go. Essentially Everything I Never Told You is about a family, a family attempting to be a family. Poignant, touching and captivating.




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