Everything I Never Told You: Book Review

Bessie Huang, Co-Editor-in-Chief

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Celeste Ng’s first novel, Everything I Never Told You, begins with what seems like an end: death. Lydia, the daughter of Marilyn and James Lee (a pairing as unconventional as its constituents are to 1970s Ohio), is found at the bottom of the town lake. And no one knows why.

While the book owes itself to Lydia’s sudden, unexpected death, it is about so much more. In fact, there is so much context, that the context bleeds into the story until it becomes exactly that.

Ultimately, Everything I Never Told You is about outsiders looking in. About a family. About Marilyn, who had pursued science for the majority of her life, and was unapologetic about standing out in the field as a female. About James, who, as a son to Chinese immigrants, has always longed for the very thing Marilyn considers trivial: social acceptance. The irony is that Marilyn was initially attracted to James because he looked different, and James to Marilyn because she looked like she fit in. About Nath and Hannah, both of whom were shadowed by the presence — and technically, for a time, the lack of presence — of their sister, Lydia. About the expectations Lydia bore upon her shoulders. About how they broke her. About the things that go unsaid, until too late, if ever.

I think a huge turning point in the book is when Marilyn finds the diaries that she’d been buying each year for Lydia at the bottom of Lydia’s bookshelf, under the assumption that her daughter had used them. After flipping through the pages, however, she discovers that Lydia had never written so much as a word in any of them.

At this point, tangible proof in hand, Marilyn is forced to confront the truth about Lydia and her secrecy. Lydia had spent her entire life trying to live up to the titanic expectations of her parents. Her mother wanted to be a doctor. Her father wanted to fit in. Lydia seemed to be achieving both of those things. Who would have guessed that the series of physics tests leading up to her death were all tests she had failed? That she spoke into silent receivers during all of her phone calls? Although she had moments of selfishness and self-centeredness, Ng gives Lydia enough dimension that readers are able to discern the root of her faults, and sympathize with her. Lydia had never lived for herself. Perhaps it made sense that she didn’t really understand what life had to offer.

Throughout Everything I Never Told You, Ng switches in and out of different perspectives, allowing readers to understand the characters much better than they understand each other. At the end of the book, we experience the night of Lydia’s death, through Lydia’s eyes — her qualms, intentions, emotions, everything. The characters never receive this information, but it doesn’t really matter. The situation is infinitely intricate regardless of how it is looked upon. Knowing only half of the story, or knowing it all, doesn’t change that.

Ng constructs a world where context is everything — literally. Lydia’s death is not the end to this story. It is not even the beginning. It is an event in their lives that, while tremendously impactful to the Lee family, they must learn to move on from. Ng’s characters are so real and so full of depth that it feels as if they have entire lives past the fulcrum of this story — because this is just one story — that don’t depend on us to be realized.

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