TITLE: Everything I Never Told You
AUTHOR: Celeste Ng
GENRE: Literature and Fiction
PUBLISHED: June 26, 2014
RATING: ★★★★★


“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 keeps 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 how mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.


“Lydia is dead, but they don’t know this yet.”
That’s how this book begins. It is almost as if the author states up-front the book’s intentions, almost like a disclaimer, ‘Don’t expect a whodunit, this is not a traditional mystery; this is a venture into wilder woods- the why’s and the how’s.’ Furthermore, in her quest to explore the reasons behind the death of the prodigal daughter, the author calls out the flaws in the world that we live in and in the people that make up that world; in ourselves. She explores the highly political concept of marginalization – racist, sexist, homophobic – and the prejudices that saturate the average person’s mind. The effect the past prejudice has, the expectations, and the threat of further prejudices – you behave a certain way and your whole community risks being labeled that way – is demonstrated and analyzed with particular attention to ignorant micro-aggressions and their effect, which is portrayed to be not catastrophic kind but of the death by a thousand cuts variety. In short, she explores our deep resentment towards the misrepresentations that prevent us from being seen as we are, that put us in neat little boxes and suffocate us by closed lids (read: closed minds).

Everything I Never Told You, as can be gathered from its title, also explores secrets and miscommunications and how these hinder us from sharing how we really feel with those people closest to us. Secrets and assumptions in this bi-racial family (notably the only family of color in their neighborhood) serve to exacerbate the alienation already brought about by existing perspective differences of race, gender, and inter-generational conflict resulting in unfair expectations and mutual destruction with the final implosion as Lydia dies.

What makes this novel stand out is the thoroughness, and the complexity of the characters’ portrayal; at no point does the author confine herself to a myopic view of any character or incident, digging into their history relentlessly in a manner such that the reader comes to sympathize with the very characters one might have otherwise despised (had our view been confined only to their actions) because of the understanding – not just knowledge but understanding – of the reasons behind those actions.

The inter-familial relationships have been explored as well. The inter-generational conflict between the parents and the children and the sibling relationships have been depicted in all their complexity.

The method the author has used to bring this book to life is omniscient third-person narration using two timelines, past and present.

A huge theme in this book is prejudice’s profound impact on individuals. To demonstrate this, the author had to connect the past to the present seamlessly using two different timelines, keeping them remarkably clear and coherent. This helps her answer the why’s and the hows – the questions asked with the very first sentence of the book.

The other theme of this book is the secrets – sometimes deliberate but, more often, unintentional miscommunications that stem from different perspectives and assumptions. To allow the reader to sense this, the author uses an omniscient third-person narrative to amplify the impact of those miscommunications further until every argument and dialogue between the characters feels like a train wreck waiting to happen. In fact, at one point, I had to wonder how, with all their misguided assumptions and contrasting perspectives, they (the characters) ever managed to get their point across. It was bleak but realistic.

Everything I Never Told You, I believe, aims to help alleviate ignorance about marginalization, to allow the reader to live the life of a bi-racial family and to think their thoughts, to experience that marginalization if only for the 304 pages of this book. It strives to spark empathy in the reader, which is the purpose of good fiction. In conclusion, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is a masterpiece of subtle explorations into the problematic themes of marginalization, secrets, and intergenerational conflicts.


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