Book Review: ‘Everything I Never Told You’ by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s seminal 2014 book Everything I Never Told You, perfectly captures the fallout of a nuclear family following an unexpected and horrifying tragedy. The author’s breakout first novel topped the Amazon charts to become the #1 book of the year 2014, became a New York Times bestseller, has been translated into 20 languages to date, and has won a number of awards, including the Asian/Pacific American award for literature in adult fiction and the American Library Association’s Alex award 2015.

Set in the late 70s in the U.S. Midwest, the story jumps straight to the tragic ending of teenager Lydia Lee—the favorite middle child—which has triggered a great deal of confusing emotions from the family being left behind. Little by little, the story untangles a cobweb of secrecy that Lydia has kept from them, revealing a different and darker side of her. It becomes a catalyst for the undoing of their seemingly mundane lives.

Although the story elaborates what Lydia was like before her death, it essentially revolves on the psychological complexity of the Lee household. The father, James Lee, has to deal with racism all his life; the mother, Marilyn Lee, is wistful of the professional life she has given up for the family; the brother, Nathan Lee, barely restrains his sibling jealousy; and the youngest, Hannah Lee, comes to terms with being neglected.

On the surface, the novel’s theme appears to focus solely on Lydia’s secrets—but as the story progresses, it slowly unravels everything that the family has never dared to talk about. To understand this family’s dynamics and make sense of the tragedy, Ms. Ng has deftly woven a series of overlapping stories which alternate between the past and the present. I also find it striking how the complicated interplay of ideals and desires can cause their downfall or lead to their redemption.

New York Times bestseller, Everything I never told you
Source: Celeste Ng

this page-turner elicits a gamut of emotions

Rich in details and character exposition, this page-turner elicits a gamut of emotions. Through Ms. Ng’s beautiful prose, I am easily transplanted from one character’s psyche to another, without any break in between. I empathize with Marilyn’s conflict between pleasing herself and serving her family. James, meanwhile, meekly lets race become the be-all and end-all of his existence. Nathan eventually comes clean about his anxiety of leaving home and resentment towards the parents whereas Hannah has resigned herself to be the quiet yet observant one—someone whom I can fully identify with.

My feelings ricochet among these four intertwined lives, whose sadness, loneliness, and regret lead me to question my own strong beliefs and the sad reality of their world. This novel has paved the way for new ways of thinking about family, race, spouse, children, and ultimately, love. It is all too refreshing to read an Asian author’s point of view on multiracial marriage and the outcomes attached to it.

refreshing to read an Asian author’s point of view on multiracial marriage

Everything I Never Told You showcases Ms. Ng’s impressive talent for dissecting complex characters and leaving them bare open for all to judge. An astute reader will, however, look beyond the judgment call and immerse instead in the hard truths behind their flaws. While the book demonstrates that no family is perfect, toxic expectations will only poison the line of communication. Love our children for who they are; that’s the only way they can thrive in a healthy home environment.

(written by Anne Silva. Anne is an author, personal development revolutionary, and mental health professional. She wrote Notes to Self, a book of prose and poetry about the struggles of and triumphs over depression and other mental health challenges. She shares her journey through her blog, Anne Silva the Writer, where she gives her thoughts on the personal empowerment of individuals. She’s currently serving local and international clients as a freelance content producer.)

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