Everything I Never Told You
Release Date: June 26, 2014
Publisher: Penguin Books
Synopsis on Goodreads:
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet . . . So begins this debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, 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 center of every party.
When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is an emotionally-gripping debut. Absolutely breathtaking! I haven’t read so much emotion in a book since Saint Anything (read in May 2015). Interestingly enough, both books are similar in the theme of teens not having their voices heard, but still very different in the story told. Ng makes the smooth transition from present to past to present; the same is true for the changing POV’s. She brings out empathy in the reader and I found myself appreciating the privilege I have.
I want to share a quote from the first line of the first chapter which really stood out to me:
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning…” (page 1)
I found myself asking why did the author decide to start the novel in this way? From the summary this isn’t a spoiler, the reader for the most part goes into the novel knowing Lydia is dead (though not how or why). Still, the reader doesn’t find out about this death like the Lee family. I came to the conclusion that perhaps Ng wants the reader to focus on how the family got to this point. How and why did this happen; could it have been prevented? As I progressed into the novel, I found that Lydia’s death was the climatic point of this family’s story, even though the reader only knows their story from the point of her death onwards. Lydia is the centre of her family’s universe, holding them together as well as shouldering a great burden.
The POV’s change between Marilyn, James, Nath, Hannah, and briefly Lydia. The reader lives through the summer of 1977 as well as past memories of the Lee family. This also made Lydia’s death the pivotal point that much more certain to me.
Marilyn has always wanted to be a doctor but ends up a homemaker, the thing her mother felt most important to achieve and something Marilyn hated the most. James grew up without friends, never fitting in anywhere. Both parents try to live their dreams through Lydia – becoming a doctor and being popular in school. Nath loves space but finds it frustrating to get the attention away from Lydia and onto him. He’s counting down the minutes until he leaves for college in the fall. Lydia dreads this moment; she feels like Nath is the only one who truly understands her feelings. Hannah is a ghost, the child always forgotten, but also someone who notices everything.
From my impression of the synopsis I expected Lydia to actually be popular with lots of friends, which wasn’t the case here. She’s surrounded by loneliness; the frustration of not being heard is slowly building up. I would have liked more POV’s with Hannah, something I expected going into this novel. In a way, this fits with that ghostly image of Hannah, but I did think this novel would centre around her – the forgotten child.
Something interesting to add, I found the writing would talk about a character/place/action as if the reader were a small child looking in on a family of dolls in a dollhouse (the Lee family being the dolls). An out-of-body experience. I find Ng’s writing extraordinary in that matter. Sometimes I even felt like a ghost embodied the pages – perhaps Lydia, who while not physically present in summer 1977, remains as a ghostly presence till the story’s end.
There are so many messages that can be taken from Everything I Never Told You: empathy, damaging stereotypes, suicide, teens not being heard, grief. Whether this is a book you might or might not usually read, Ng has the ability to draw you in. A powerfully moving story. It’s so enthralling that just thinking about the ending while writing this review brings back those emotions.