Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Publisher: Penguin (June 2014). Literary fiction. Mystery/thriller. Hardcover. 304 pages. ISBN13: 9781594205712.
Everything I Never Told You is a heartbreaking exploration on race and identity in the late 1970s. It’s a near perfect novel about an imperfect family. Is there any better read. Author Celeste Ng writes in a sparse yet exquisitely descriptive style. This novel engulfs you from page one and you’ll still be thinking about it days and months after finishing. Lydia drowns and her family deals with the aftermath. Was it an accident or deliberate? How could this happen when 16-year-old Lydia was the perfect child destined for wonderful things? As the family mourns secrets emerge. Ng captures this interracial family’s angst and struggles to fit in among a white Midwestern society with style and finesse. Every character’s intriguing. You want to read and read as quickly as you can yet you never want the novel to end.
Marilyn wanted to be a doctor. But she was a white woman and it was the 50’s at Radcliffe. She met James Lee when she took one of his classes. They felt an immediate attraction: he to her because she made him fit in and she to him because he was an outsider and although she looked like many others in her heart she felt like one. A move to the Midwest and several children later and Marilyn’s a mother not a doctor. She abandoned her career and she resents it.
“It would bother Marilyn, for the rest of her life, that her mother had been right. She worked her way through chemistry, majored in physics, ticked the requirements for medical school off her list. Late at night while her roommate wound her curlers in her hair and patted cold cream on her cheeks and went to bed, Marilyn sipped double-strength tea and kept awake by picturing herself in a white doctor’s coat, laying a cool hand against a feverish forehead, touching a stethoscope to a patient’s chest. It was the furthest thing she could imagine from her mother’s life, where sewing a neat hem was a laudable accomplishment and removing beet stains from a blouse was cause for celebration. Instead she would blunt pain and staunch bleeding and set bones. She would save lives. Yet in the end it happened just as her mother predicted: she met a man.”
Lydia became the model child, the favorite child with her blue eyes and jet black hair. She received the majority of the attention. Eldest son Nathan receives good grades and will be attending Harvard but no one notices him that much. Youngest daughter Hannah was unplanned and thus nearly forgotten by her parents on a daily basis. Marilyn wanted Lydia to do everything that she was never able to do herself and that’s a ton of pressure for any teen, for any child. Just having a parent live vicariously through you and then having that parent push you from a young age to succeed must be stressful, miserable and provide no outlets for self-expression.
“But he didn’t want to remember all the other times his father had doted on Lydia but stared at him with disappointment flaring in his eyes, all the times their mother had praised Lydia but looked over and past and through him, as if he were made of air.”
It’s as if no one in the Lee family ever communicates with each other. Not really. But how often is this the case that later on after a tragedy someone will say they never realized something about someone. Both siblings hold suspicions about what happened to Lydia but their parents just won’t listen. Nathan recalls “how in the cafeteria she sits silent while the others chatter; how, when they’ve finished copying her homework, she quietly slides her notebook back into her bookbag. After school, she walks to the bus alone and settles into the seat beside him in silence.” Yet at home Lydia’s put up a façade for her parents. They believe she has friends. That she’s both studious and popular. That she’s not lonely and isolated and questioning her place. None of them seem to know each other very well. Ng crafts this novel with delicate precision. It’s both a family expose and suspenseful. What led to Lydia’s drowning? Will the Lee family ever heal?
My deepest apologies to Celeste Ng and Penguin for sitting on this review for so long. I’ve only rated seven books five***** stars this year and Everything I Never Told You is one of those books. I fear that whatever I write will never be enough to convey the power and magnificence of this debut novel. So it’s taken me a long time to write this review. But I haven’t stopped thinking about this novel since I finished reading it in June.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Penguin Random House.
purchase at Amazon: Everything I Never Told You: A Novel