Book Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
"Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible."
Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You was everywhere in 2014 and 2015. I was intrigued, but it wasn’t until I devoured Little Fires Everywhere earlier this year, that I finally decided to give Everything I Never Told You a try. James and Marilyn Lee and their children, Nath, Lydia, and Hannah, live in small town Ohio. James is a professor of American History at the local college. He is the son of first-generation Chinese immigrants, while Marilyn is a blonde and blue-eyed beauty. Their interracial marriage and biracial children cause many looks and comments in their Ohio town in the 1970s. While it seems like their lives would be fairly idyllic, despite the race issue, everything falls apart when Lydia, their favorite daughter, is found dead.
In flashbacks, we get a good look at the Lee family, starting with Marilyn and James’ love story and then on into the kids’ lives. Marilyn is a homemaker, but she had dreams of being a doctor until she met James and fell in love. Even after they married, she assumed she would go on to medical school, but soon she had Nathan, then soon after Lydia. When Nath and Lydia are little, Marilyn begins to resent her life and disappears to take classes for medical school. Only when she realizes she’s pregnant with Hannah does she return home. But the summer that she was gone forever changed the Lee family. Lydia is determined to never let her mother leave, so she vows to do whatever will make her mother happy. Unfortunately for their family, that means James and Marilyn dote on Lydia and unintentionally ignore Nath and Hannah. Marilyn is convinced that Lydia will have all the opportunities to be a successful doctor, and James encourages Lydia to do whatever is popular, because he wants to make sure that his children, specifically Lydia, never feel left out again. But as time goes on, both Nath and Lydia begin to resent their parents for this pressure. Lydia doesn’t really care for science and does not have any friends, while Nath obsesses over space and cannot wait to leave for Harvard.
While the two oldest Lee children are close, the youngest Hannah seems to fade into the background, but she observes everything and understands a lot more than her family gives her credit. When Lydia is found dead, everything the Lees know quickly falls apart. Marilyn and James are devastated and can barely look at Nath and Hannah. Nath is convinced their next door neighbor, Jack, is responsible. And Hannah just wants her sister back. James makes some questionable choices. The police are convinced it is a suicide, but the Lees cannot accept this.
Everything I Never Told You is one of those books that I will keep thinking about for many months, just like I have with Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. Ng writes these extremely flawed, realistic characters that you cannot help hate, but root for at the same time. The Lees not only have to deal with regular family stuff, but they also have to worry about racial comments and slurs thrown at them almost daily. So they have learned to isolate themselves. But isolating themselves proves to be detrimental when dealing with the grief of Lydia’s death. They have no friends or family to turn to, and they begin to fight amongst themselves.
I love how Ng uses each character's fears to show how far the Lee family has drifted apart. Marilyn is determined that Lydia will have every opportunity to be a doctor or scientist, and not just a housewife; she is afraid that Lydia will make the same mistake if she does not push her hard enough. James is afraid his children will face the same challenges he did socially, so he is bound and determined to make them fit in and be popular. Lydia is afraid of her mother leaving again and disappointing her parents.
Everything I Never Told You was a delightful read, and I really enjoyed it. If you are looking for a good dysfunctional family story, I definitely recommend this one! I give this one 4.5 stars.
Let me know what other dysfunctional family stories you recommend!