Everything I Never Told You (ISBN-13: 978-0143127550) by Celeste Ng is a book that has been on my radar for a while now. It was Ng’s debut novel, and won the Amazon Book of the Year award in 2014. I finally decided to purchase and read this when Amazon had the Kindle edition of this book, and a few other New York Times’ best sellers, for a mere $3.00. I chose to include this book in my Booking Around the World series because I wanted my selection for the United States to be special. Sadly, the majority of the books I have read have been written by American authors (which is precisely why I created the challenge for myself in the first place). I decided that when I selected a book for the United States, I wanted to choose an author that represented the diversity of America well, and I think I made a good choice.
I was shocked when I dove headfirst into a few chapters of this book and had to set it down because of how quickly I was getting attached to it. Let me tell you, this almost never happens. There are books I can’t put down because the stories are just that compelling, but the reason I had to set this one down is because the themes were hitting a little too close to home, and it was beginning to scare me. Nevertheless, I couldn’t resist for long, and had to pick it back up the following day and finish the novel in a few hours.
As a Taiwanese-American, I am always wary of immigrant stories. Oftentimes, they have overly singular themes and end up being derivative. Sometimes, they are written by authors who are not a part of the culture they are writing about, which is always dangerous territory. At the same time, there are so many spaces within the literary world that need to be filled with more American immigrant stories, to diversify the narrative of what American life looks like. Now more than ever, it is important to look to our country’s history of mistreating immigrants. It is rather sobering, and it is vital we do not forget these stories lest we make the same mistakes again.
So, as I said, I don’t normally have high expectations when it comes to stories about American immigrants. But when these types of stories are done well, I am that much more appreciative. I was put at ease when I discovered that Everything I Never Told You is an “own voices” novel, which means that the author is writing in his or her own voice, identifying with the culture that he or she is writing about. Celeste Ng is a first-generation Chinese-American that was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When she was 10 years old, she and her family moved to Shaker Heights, Ohio. While Everything I Never Told You is not autobiographical, and I certainly don’t think authors have to have first-hand experience of everything they write about, I do attribute her upbringing and experiences to how well-written this story was. To me, nothing felt forced and it didn’t feel like the book was something written by an outsider looking in.
The book starts off with a mixed-race family of five with a Caucasian mother, Marilyn, and Chinese-American father, James, living in suburban Ohio discovering that their 15 year old “favorite” daughter, Lydia, was found dead at the bottom of a lake.
Let’s stop right here.
James Lee is Chinese-American. I’m Taiwanese-American. The story is set in Ohio. I grew up in Ohio. This doesn’t seem like much, but sadly, it is very rare that I have even this much in common with any one character in a book. The similarities drew me into the book almost immediately. Of course, the main arc of the rest of the book is the family trying to figure out why Lydia died, and the events that led up to her death. Naturally, I was expecting a thriller; this novel ended up being so much more. Not only does it explore how each member of the family copes with Lydia’s death, but also the problems that existed in the family dynamic long before the tragedy. I felt personally connected to every single Lee family member in some way.
There are so many layers and dimensions to this narrative, which is something that I often find lacking in novels about American immigrants. I cannot deny that my culture has greatly influenced the person I am, but there needs to be more to a story than just culture (I’m looking at you, Amy Tan). I think part of why Everything I Never Told you worked so well is due to the mixed-race family aspect of this book. Sometimes I feel like I have a void where my heart should be, and James and Marilyn’s meet-cute even got to me.
But eventually, as with any marriage, obstacles developed in their relationship. On top of the normal marital difficulties, the two also have to cope with problems unique to their interracial marriage. Set in 1970’s Ohio, interracial marriages and mixed raced children were highly scrutinized. What happens when one partner has always stood out and desperately wants to fit in, and it’s the opposite for the other partner? Ng explores this theme. She also explores estrangement, missed potential, and having to settle for a life that differs from the one envisioned. Another important theme is a parent’s desire to live vicariously through their child, and the thin line between wanting a better life for your children and letting them make their own choices. One of the most difficult topics that I have rarely seen addressed in a meaningful way is favoritism by parents towards children. When Lydia, the favorite, and the middle child of the family dies, the Lee’s are still left with two children, Nat and Hannah. Celeste explores their perspectives with depth, particularly in regards to Nat and the complex relationship he had with Lydia.
Stylistically, I find Celeste Ng’s writing beautiful and lyrical. It worked well for a story such as this one. At just over 300 pages, this was not a long book, but Ng’s style slowed down the tempo of a story that could have otherwise moved too quickly. There is a twist at the end. I will be quite honest – I thought the novel could have done without the twist and it might have been all the better for it, but it certainly did not ruin the book for me. The ending was not as strong as the beginning, but part of that might just be my personal preference of how “finished” I like conclusions to be. Overall, I still think this was an excellent debut novel and one that entered my life at just the right time.