A Chinese American family living in Ohio in the 1970s, add a missing daughter and you’ve got the plot for Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.
Everything I Never Told You is the debut novel of author Celeste Ng. Published in 2014, it was chosen as Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014 and a New York Times Notable Book of 2014. These are only two of the many honors and mentions that Everything I Never Told You has received. It’s a story that’s been told before - a missing girl, a heartbroken family, and the intrigue that follows - but Ng manages to add enough nuances to make this novel a truly fascinating read.
Via Celeste Ng
I finished this book a little over 3 weeks ago and I must say that it was a very quick read (only 298 pages), but I’ve had a difficult time deciding what I would like to write in this review. I enjoyed the book tremendously and plowed right through it, but what can I really say about it? If you've been keeping up with my reviews, then you've probably guessed by now that I hate spoilers. I don't want to read a review and then know everything that happened. I’m the person who hates movie trailers that basically tell you the entire plot of the movie. So, I choose not to give away major plot details and twists to my readers. Sometimes that makes it a little more tricky to determine exactly what to write about.
With that being said, I guess I should start at the beginning, where all good stories start. “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.” And so it begins! The premise is not new and there are plenty of other books, movies, and TV shows that come to mind that begin with a missing person, followed by a retrospective account of what really happened. (I’m thinking The Killing off the top of my head.) In that, Ng’s novel is not original. She introduces the fact that Lydia is missing and then goes back in time following each character’s narrative.
What is completely different about this novel is that it’s about a Chinese American family in the 1970s living in Ohio, and dealing daily with the bigotry and small-town mentality prevalent during that time. (Not that it isn’t present today, just watch the news for 10 minutes!) This introduces an entirely new element to this oft-told tale because it is evident that this narrow-mindedness and, in many cases, discrimination has had a huge impact on the psychological development of all of the leading characters; Lydia’s parents, her brother (Nath) and younger sister (Hannah), and most definitely Lydia herself.
“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.”
Lydia is the middle child of James and Marilyn Lee, and she’s also their favorite. She inherited the blue eyes of her mother and the dark black hair of her father. Lydia is everything that her parents never were or at least that’s the way they see her.
Lydia’s parents had no conception of who Lydia was as an individual. Her mother was overbearing, pushing Lydia to be the doctor she failed to become. Her father was lax, but also pushing Lydia to be the social butterfly he wished he could have been. Both guided Lydia in completely opposite directions, neither of which were what Lydia would have chosen for herself.
“Everything she had dreamed for herself faded away, like fine mist on a breeze. She could not remember now why she thought it had all been possible.”
But none of this is realized until Lydia is gone. It is not until after Lydia is dead that her parents, and her siblings, can recognize who she was as a person, and, in turn, who they themselves truly are. It is only through reliving pivotal moments in each of their lives that they are able to recognize themselves and eventually rebuild what they’ve lost. I think that this is the other really interesting element about Everything I Never Told You. This novel questions parenting techniques, personality formation, and, ultimately, whether one person can ever really know another. And I mean really know, not on a superficial level, but really know what makes a person tick.
"He pushed her in. And then he pulled her out. All her life, Lydia would remember one thing. All his life, Nath would remember another.”
In the case of Everything I Never Told You, this question is especially applicable to parents and children. Can a parent truly ever know who their child is? What their child’s aspirations are without trying to mold that child into the person they wish that they themselves could have been? I don’t have children and so I don’t know the answer (and maybe no one does), but I find the question intriguing. I think it brings back the old nature vs. nurture debate; how much of who we are is the result of our biology and how much the result of experiences, maybe even just one major event that forever changes our paths?
“Everything that she had wanted for Lydia, which Lydia had never wanted but had embraced anyway. A dull chill creeps over her.”
I could go on and on about my opinions on that topic, but this is supposed to be a book review so I’ll wrap things up. Ultimately, this novel is about loss, family, and the struggle that we all face to be the person that we were truly meant to be. The best advice I can give about Everything I Never Told You is the same as my typical suggestion - read it for yourself. I think that everyone can get something out of it, whether that be entertainment or a philosophical debate within yourself is up to you. It’s well-written, easy to read, and an intriguing story. So if you’ve got the time check it out! An added bonus, you’ll be supporting a first time novelist!
Have you read Everything I Never Told You? Did my review spark an interest? Please share and comment with your thoughts, ideas, suggestions, or recommendations!