Book Review | Everything I Never Told You

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Synopsis:

“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.”

Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Blackfriars
Pages: 304

I think I’m amongst the minority when it comes to this book, since I didn’t particularly think it lived up to the hype that has been going on for a while on booktube. That being said, I don’t think this book was bad either, but I do think that it lacked in major aspects of the story, specifically in plotline.

The beginning of the book was everything I expected from it, but as I got further into it, the story and my attention started dwindling until I just couldn’t wait for the book to be finally over. The starting sentence deceives you into thinking you are about to engage in a thriller book, looking for clues among the story to try to understand or anticipate what really happened to Lydia. Was she murdered? How did she end up in the lake? But it is the opposite of that. The story is more focused on the characters and their backgrounds than on the actual investigation which is what you are led to believe by the blurb on the back. I think it was this misguiding that made me expect something this book had never intended to be: a Lovely Bones kind of book. And it is not me who says so, since that is what is written in the cover of the book.

Since the story is told intertwining two temporal points of view, one from the present from the moment Lydia disappears and is later found dead, to her family grieving her death and the police investigating what actually happened, and the other point of view from the past before Lydia disappears, we start getting little bits of information on what might actually have happened that led to Lydia’s death. I think one reason why the story developed extremely slowly it was because of this way of structuring it, and the fact that each chapter lasted 15 pages or so, didn’t help either in making the story more intriguing.

But my disappointment came specifically from the characters themselves and the whole “plot” of this book. In order to understand what the characters experience in this story we have to know that we are being given a perspective of what it was like to be a person of color living in the US during that period of time, when racism and discrimination was extremely prevalent, and when social movements had begun years ago in their fight for their equal rights. Having said this, it was heartbreaking to read about the discrimination James mostly, but also his kids, had to go through their entire lives because of their race. But no amount of sympathy could make me care at all for this characters because of their horrible, horrible decisions they continuously kept making throughout the entire book. I think that I should mention first how horrible Lydia’s parents were. James and Marilyn are the definition of what a parent with failed dreams should NEVER do to their kids, unless you want to leave them with permanent trauma. And this is where the whole conflict of the story arises, Lydia’s parents imposing their own failed dreams onto their kids, their desire to see in their kids what they could never do when they were growing up, and not in a healthy way, I must say. Marilyn, Lydia’s mother, had always wanted to graduate from college and be a medical doctor, going against her own mother’s wishes, to be the wife of a Harvard man and forever be a housewife taking care of her children, but her dreams were shattered when she found out she was pregnant with her first child, Nath. Because of this, she will soon become a smothering mother who will want Lydia to follow the path she never could, with no regard for what Lydia wanted or cared for. And then we have James, the father, who had to suffer the cruelty of kids and adults, and their discrimination towards his race. James was never the popular kid, he could never feel like he belonged anywhere, mainly because he was Chinese and society at that moment was incredibly racist, even more so than today. So when he had Nath and Lydia, he saw in them the perfect opportunity for them to never become or be what he was when he was a child: a loner without any friends. It is because of this that he will become a bit obsessive with Lydia’s social life as well as Nath’s, feeling at points embarrassment at his own son for taking after himself. And so we start to see the pressure Lydia’s parents had put on her, and how trapped she felt in her own life, and this is when I started to anticipate how things were going to end.

There was nothing in these characters that made me care for them, because they all found themselves making terrible decisions, and being completely horrible to one another. And yet, I have to admit that this book is an excellent portrait of a dysfunctional family whose secrets and lies resurface once the loss of Lydia hits them. And in that, I have to congratulate Celeste Ng, because not many could have represented with such perfection the toll it takes being part of a family like that.

Even though Everything I Never Told You wasn’t one of my favorite reads of this year, I have to recommend this debut novel to anyone interested in reading a book that focuses on character portrayals, family dynamics and discussions of discrimination among society and how this can affect the lives of many people. Celeste Ng does wonders with the portrayal of a bi-racial family in the middle of the 1970s, but don’t go into this book expecting a Lovely Bones kind of book like I did, because this is definitely not it.

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