Title: Everything I Never Told You
Author: Celeste Ng
Release Date: June 26, 2014
Publisher: The Penguin Press
Genre: Literary Fiction, Cultural Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Lydia Lee is the teenage daughter of James and Marilyn Lee, a half-Chinese, half-American girl growing up in the 1970s, a time when mixed-race children weren’t common. When Lydia disappears, it shatters the calm facade of the Lee family, bringing into sharp relief the aspects of themselves they have wanted to hide and highlighting the secrets that each of them have kept.
A gorgeous, heartbreaking novel, Everything I Never Told You has vivid characters who each have to face the worst of themselves after Lydia’s disappearance. Ng crafts a rich novel that deals with many different issues, asking the reader whether the same thing that might bring a family together could also tear them apart.
Everything I Never Told You is the simple story of one family struggling to survive after the loss of their daughter. It could make for a simple novel, but because of how richly Ng drew her characters, it isn’t at all. The basic plot may seem straightforward, especially because Lydia’s fate is revealed relatively early in the novel, but these characters make it so complex and heartwrenching that they’ll linger with you long after the last pages are turned.
James Lee is Chinese, and that fact underscores everything he does, says, and is in Everything I Never Told You. He has always felt inferior because he was an outsider looking in; he’s never quite fit in. Even after marrying the beautiful Marilyn (in his eyes, she is everything he is not in terms of being American), he still feels as though he isn’t quite good enough. His relationship with his son, Nathan, suffers because of this, as indeed do all his relationships in the novel. As multicultural marriages become more and more common, it’s so interesting to think back to a few decades ago, when they were absolutely an aberration. James struggles with this every day of his life, and on every page of the book.
While Marilyn doesn’t focus as much on race or culture, she has her own problems in Everything I Never Told You. Originally planning to attend medical school, Marilyn dropped out when she became pregnant and has always regretted the decision never to return to school. Watching her lament her hopes and dreams, wondering if her life was wasted, is profound. She has three beautiful children, true, and she doesn’t regret them for a second. But she always wanted to become something more than what she is, a feeling that readers will really sympathize with.
But Ng doesn’t stop with these two characters; she also allows the reader to hear from Nathan and Hannah, the youngest, and even Lydia in the past. Through these characters, Ng fleshes out a painful, bittersweet story about characters on a rampaging path towards self-destruction because of their anger and fury, but also characters seeking redemption and refuge in the love of their family. It’s poignant and well told, seamlessly moving between past and present such that the reader sees a comprehensive portrait of the family, of their repressed issues before Lydia’s disappearance and the explosion that comes after. It’s hard to believe this is a debut novel because it’s so expertly crafted, but it leaves excitement for what might come next from this talented author.