Book Review: Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

everything-i-never-told-you-celeste-ng-book-review

Title: Everything I Never Told You (2014)
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Blackfriars
Genre: Contemporary
Extent: 304 pages
Release Date: June 26, 2014
Rating: ★★★★★

Goodreads Description

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

So begins this exquisite novel about 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 that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.

Review

The first time I heard of Everything I Never Told You, I was at The Strand, New York City, with my publishing classmates from Melbourne. I picked up the book, read the first line — Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. — and immediately resolved to buy it when I get back home. My mistake was not writing an actual note, as I promptly forgot about it… at least until I saw it again in the library recently.

This book is about the Lees in the aftermath of favourite child Lydia’s disappearance and death. A Chinese American family in a time where interracial relationships were not at all common, they were outsiders in their community: civil but not friendly, stable but not rooted, accepted but generally ignored. The story isn’t centred around answering “how and why is Lydia dead?” but more on exploring the dynamics of the Lee family, past and present: James and Marilyn’s marriage, their relationship with their three children, and each person’s motivations, fears, goals and lives.

How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers…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.

Everything I Never Told You might sound like a thriller, but to me it was much, much more of a character study. Not one character actually steals the spotlight — everyone feels equally important. There’s James, the father, born and raised in America but not once belonging because of his skin colour and race; Marilyn, the stay-at-home mum who’s living a life she had never ever wanted; Nathan, the first child, who feels overshadowed by his sister; Lydia, the favoured middle, dead of unknown causes; and finally Hannah, the forgotten youngest.

The writing is simple yet beautiful, focused on the little things, and there’s a subtle sense of sadness and trappedness that carries the story. The Lees aren’t unhappy, per se, but there is so, so much going on underneath the surface, things that they never tell each other, things that they keep quiet about for fear of change or something else. These characters are realistic, three-dimensional, so flawed and so complex.

“The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you–whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.”

A major reason why I love this book so much, I will admit, is because I really related to a lot of it. Everything I Never Told You deals with so many things so beautifully: parent-child relationships, expectations and the weight of them, race and racism, interracial  and family relationships, discrimination and miscegenation, acceptance and belonging, shame and secrets. It’s a portrayal of a family so real, so familiar, so close to my heart, that I saw myself in each and every one of the characters.

I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with the story, but fall in love I did, so much that I had trouble letting go of the characters when I finished. The pacing might be slow, yes, but it is perfect for the kind of character exploration that it is. This is going in my favourites list for sure. 💙

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25 thoughts on “Book Review: Everything I Never Told You – Celeste Ng

  1. Great review for this book Reg. I remember seeing your Book Look for this book and thought the blurb sounded interesting but reading your review, and seeing you gave this one five stars, means I need to add it to my to-read list and pick it up ASAP! 🙂
    This sounds like a beautiful story, full of wonderful characters as well, I can’t wait to get around to it myself. I hope I enjoy it as much as you did! ❤

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  2. I’ve heard so many good things about this book and now you’ve convinced me to add it to my TBR, haha. I’m not really the best with slow pacing but I can deal it when there’s amazing characters so hopefully this is something I can get into! Great review, Reg 😀

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  3. I swear I’ve seen the cover for this somewhere before but I can’t remember where and it’s bugging me 😂. That aside, it sounds like such a beautiful story and I love contemporaries that have that very realistic feel. Plus, I’m always a sucker for a great book that focuses on a lot of family dynamics. Definitely adding this one to my TBR. Great review, Reg! 💕

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  4. Awww I’m so happy you were able to connect so strongly with a book! I discovered this book a while back when I was looking for books that were set in my home state of Ohio, and this one had popped up. I hadn’t really made up my mind whether I was going to read it or not, because like you, I thought this book was going to be more of a thriller. You have definitely persuaded me that this book is more than it appears.

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