Celeste Ng's (pronounced "ing") debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, begins with the death of 16-year-old Lydia Lee, middle child of Chinese-American James Lee and his Caucasian wife Marilyn, and sister to Nathan and Hannah. As the plot progresses, the author gradually reveals the many factors that contributed to the tragedy; the details of Lydia's life slowly emerge to form a complete picture almost like a Polaroid sharpening from a faded image into a crystal clear photo.
Ostensibly about discovering the circumstances behind the heartbreaking loss of a teenager, the book dives into much more. Ng's themes are complex and densely packed as she explores such subjects as the varied effects of an unexpected death on people; the feeling of being different and alone and how race can contribute to one's sense of isolation; the way parental attitudes and expectations influence their children; and the importance of communication and the consequences of communicating poorly.
The overall tone is elegiac as the author seamlessly weaves past and present, going back in time decades before Lydia's birth to uncover the factors in her parents' lives which ultimately contribute to Lydia's demise. Ng's prose is exceptionally perceptive; she realistically conveys her characters' inner motivations, dreams and disappointments, providing a rich understanding of what has brought them all to this particular juncture.
Ng's writing is beautiful and that alone makes the novel a stand-out. However, I also found the book an intensely emotional experience. Of course, the death of a teenager is traumatic, and the author vividly conveys the family's deep sense of loss. But it was also sad to witness the miscommunication between James and Marilyn two people who love each other but are so wrapped up in their own worlds that they misinterpret much of what each other says.
Even more painful is watching these parents interact with their children, trying to mold them into something they weren't meant to be, often into an image of what they themselves failed to become. For example, James feels his race has kept him from getting jobs and from having many friends, and consequently he's determined his children will be popular. He takes Nathan to the public swimming pool to make friends, but instead the boy is bullied and wants to leave early:
So part of him wanted to tell Nath that he knew: what it was like to be teased, what it was like to never fit in. The other part of him wanted to shake his son, to slap him. To shape him into something different. Later, when Nath was too slight for the football team, too short for the basketball team, too clumsy for the baseball team, when he seemed to prefer reading and poring over his atlas and peering through his telescope to making friends, James would think back to this day in the swimming pool, this first disappointment in his son, this first and most painful puncture in his fatherly dreams.
The author's skill at conveying scenes like this and her ability to ensure they strike a deep resonance makes the novel an exceptionally powerful read.
I highly recommend Everything I Never Told You to anyone who wants to experience a truly remarkable novel; I found it outstanding in every way. I also can't remember the last time I finished a book and so wanted to find someone else who'd read it so I'd have someone to discuss it with; consequently I think it would make a particularly good choice for book groups.
This review was originally published in July 2014, and has been updated for the May 2015 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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