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Book Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I actually read this book earlier in the year, but hadn’t got round to posting this. I’ll start with saying, I picked this book up at the airport as I had forgotten all my books – it’s probably one of the few books I have picked up without doing some research online. I got it totally wrong in terms of its genre. This book wasn’t at all what I thought it would be – but nether the less it was a good read.

Everything I never told you by Celeste Ng

Genre: Fiction, Mystery

BUG Rating: 4/5

Overall: To set expectations, this is definitely not a gory thriller. It’s the story of a second generation Chinese American who marries a white woman in the 1970s in America, and their family. To the outsider, everything appears ‘normal’ until the disappearance and death of the middle child, Lydia, the glue that has held them all together.  As well as covering this aspect of the story, the book really brought a lot of thought-provoking issues to light, such as the wife who married, to not conform to the ‘norm’ at the time, to rattle her own mother’s cage, the husband who always wanted to be popular but wasn’t and always felt out of place, to the children’s experience, growing up in a bi-racial family in that period. Each member of the Lee family has a voice in this novel, with their own story and way of processing Lydia’s disappearance and death. The book ultimately comes to a heart-wrenching and poignant conclusion as they discover what really happened to Lydia. The book was a good read, I got through it quickly as I was unable to put it down, but still the pace wasn’t quite there. However, this was still an excellent start to Ng’s writing career.

Before that she hadn’t realised how fragile happiness was, how if you were careless, you could knock it over and shatter it.

Plot:

Lydia is the favourite child of Marilyn and James Lee; a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue – in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker. In James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the centre of every party. But Lydia is under pressures that have nothing to do with growing up in 1970s small town Ohio. Her father is an American, born of first-generation Chinese immigrants, and his ethnicity, and hers, make them conspicuous in any setting.

When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, James is consumed by guilt and sets out on a reckless path that may destroy his marriage. Marilyn, devastated and vengeful, is determined to make someone accountable, no matter what the cost. Lydia’s older brother, Nathan, is convinced that local bad boy Jack is somehow involved. But it’s the youngest in the family – Hannah – who observes far more than anyone realises and who may be the only one who knows what really happened.


The book starts with an intriguing fact: Lydia is dead. But no one knows this yet. This REALLY got my heart pumping – but don’t be fooled, this is not a crime thriller, as I had thought it was. It’s not really about her death at all – What it is about is the lives of the Lee family, set in 1970s America (and flash backs 50s/60s), and essentially their lives. Don’t get me wrong, Lydia’s death is definitely a core element of the book, but it’s also so much more than that. The novel follows Lydia (of course!), her parents; James a second generation Chinese immigrant who definitely has a chip on his shoulder about being an ‘outsider’, her mother Marilyn, an all American (white) sweetheart who did not want to conform to the normal rules of society (or her mother’s) at the time; and her two siblings, Hannah and Nathan. Although not a thriller, there is plenty of mystery and intrigue as you get to know the family and try and piece together what really did happen to Lydia. Celeste Ng has really created a masterpiece in terms of how she explores and reveals the family relationships.

The story unravels all the family’s secrets, desires, regrets and longings from their past and present – from secret affairs, runaways, career jealousy and a continuous striving to achieve the ‘American Dream’. This book covers it all. Ng really enables us to get into character and feel, connect and understand their perspective, despite sometimes their choices being morally wrong. At times it felt like I was actually reading their journals, as each of them tries to make sense of Lydia’s death by revisiting both their own pasts and diving through memories of Lydia throughout the years. There is no secret about it in this book, Lydia was clearly the favourite, and her parents put a lot of pressure on Lydia to ‘live the dreams they never had’. Her father wants her to ‘fit in’ and be popular, which he never was, with lots of friends. As for her mother, Marilyn pushes all her own unrealised dreams and desires of becoming a scientist onto Lydia. Could this pressure have all been too much?

I am only scratching the surface here, as I could easily find myself retelling the whole story!

As a debut novel, Celeste Ng has done very well. I enjoyed the book, although still expected slightly more from it, it was a bit slow going. I found it very thought provoking, and interesting to get a glimpse into what life was like for bi-racial families in the mid-nighties in America. This book will stay with me for a long time. I am looking forward to reading Ng’s subsequent novel Little Fires Everywhere.


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