Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Published by Penguin Books on June 26th, 2014
Genres: Fiction, Mystery
“Before that she hadn’t realized how fragile happiness was, how if you were careless, you could knock it over and shatter it.”
I will gladly shout on rooftops about how much I love Little Fires Everywhere. So I was a bit nervous going into Everything I Never Told You because could it ever live up Fires? The answer is yes. It did live up to Fires AND I like it more than Fires.
Everything I Never Told You follows 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 to make her fulfill the dreams they weren’t able to pursue for themselves. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the Lee family is destroyed. Lydia’s death tumbles them into chaos. Will the shattered delicate balancing act keeping the Lee family together ever be repaired?
The plot of the book is seemingly very simple. It starts with a small seed: “Lydia is dead.” But then blossoms in every which direction.
Through non-linear perspective shifts, each member of Lydia’s family deals with their grief in different ways, reflecting on their lives and filling us in on more of the mystery. As the book unfolds, you come to understand that expectations and dreams can be damaging.
I often find that non-linear plot can actually be very confusing and can take me out of the story. But in this case, I loved how Ng chose to move the timeline. I wasn’t left feeling bogged down at any point. The flow of the writing and story felt easy and effortless. But it also felt purposeful, like every sentence needed to be there. In fact, it’s one of the very few times where I felt like the story finished at the appropriate time. No plot was sacrificed in this fairly short novel.
Even though its gorgeously written, I don’t think this book will be for everyone. It’s very character-focused with little plot driving it forward. That seems to be where Ng shines. But if you love family drama, then you’ll love this. I found it fascinating to dive deep into each character’s psyche and examine the family’s relationships with one another and themselves. And while there is a mystery that opens up the novel, it’s not a fast-paced mystery. It’s not a Ruth Ware or Peter Swanson type deal.
One thing I’ve started to notice with Ng’s work is that she’s very good at building tension in a really excruciating and smart way that had me clenching the book. I felt Nath’s disappointment when he was trying to share his interests with his family and was turned away; I felt Hannah’s fear when she walked in on a fight with James and Marilyn; and I felt how Lydia suffocated under her parents’ expectations.
That’s all to say that the characters in the book felt so real to me. I related to James, Nath, Lydia, and Hannah’s experiences growing up. And even though I didn’t grow up in the ’50s-’70s, I know what it’s like to look around and not see yourself in anyone. And it’s hard being the only one at school who looks different. Feeling like you never quite fit in even though you might share some commonalities with your classmates. I was so touched to feel like I saw a part of myself in this book.
While I was thoroughly angry at all the members of the Lee family at some point, I loved them all! By the end of it, I felt like I knew their thoughts and actions so well that I could predict what they were going to do or how they were going to react to things.
At first, I was so shocked with how Ng so bluntly approached very controversial and touchy subjects. There’s discussions about diversity in books, racism, sexism, feminism, tradition, and sexuality. But Ng does it in less than 300 pages in a way that addresses each of these topics in a variety of ways.
I think I was most drawn to the challenges of identity and how it’s different for women and people of colour. And being able to acknowledge these differences doesn’t necessarily mean you can relate to one another easily.
This quiet book is a fantastic character portrait. It’s powerful, haunting, and complex in its seemingly simple moments. I’ve never been so fascinated before with the layers of love, jealousy, and quiet resentment people can have. It seems mundane, but Ng manages to make you emotionally invested in it! And it goes to show that you never know who people really are and everyone keeps a part of themselves hidden whether they want to or not.
After I finished it, I felt very sad to leave the world behind and emerge into my reality again. And I can’t wait to read more from Ng!