When I picked up Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, all I knew was that it was a bestseller. After reading Glass Sword, that wasn’t necessarily a winning attribute. Perhaps it’s because my expectations were so low, but it was a lot better and more emotionally compelling than I anticipated.
The story focuses on a family in 1970’s America whose eldest daughter (and the middle child of three) has just drowned. This family is unique in that they are the only mixed race (Chinese father, White mother) family living in a small Midwestern town. This story is told in a fluid point of view between all five members of the family. It examines the family, their pasts, and their relationships with each other.
While the recently deceased Lydia is the focal point and driving action of the story, I found her to be the least interesting character. Personally, the mother and her struggle between what she wants and what is expected of her was what kept me reading. She grew up under a single mother who built her whole image on being the epitome of traditional femininity. From teaching Home Ec to treating her Cookbook as the Bible, her daughter Marilyn rebelled against it by studying science and wanting to be a doctor, a radical idea for a woman in the late 50s. In the midst of this she meets the man who becomes her husband and completely gives up her dreams for his fantasy of the Ideal American Family.
In his novel Looking for Alaska, John Green structures his narrative in “Before” and “After” a pivotal event. In Everything I Never Told You, Lydia’s death should be that pivot point. Instead, it’s Marilyn’s leaving her husband and two small children to try to finish her college degree. This event is what shaped both Lydia and Nath’s relationships with their parents and each other. Every choice and action in the novel can be traced back to this and the affect it had.
While the mystery of the novel is how Lydia died, I honestly didn’t care. It was more of a character study than a mystery novel. I would recommend this novel to anyone who loves a good character study with simple prose. I don’t think it’ll be on reading lists any time soon, but it is well worth the read and bestseller status.