Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
(Just a warning, this review will have some degree of spoilers cause I don't know how to write a full review without them)
Overview: Lydia is dead. Just turned 16 and already gone. With no close friends to point to a possible explanation and no leads, her family is left confused, forced to confront a world without their favorite daughter. Instead of a murder mystery, what unfolds is a heartbreaking story of a family in 1970s Ohio forced to confront every tiny, fractured web that led up to Lydia death. Bouncing around with no bounds for time, space, or narrator, we hear stories from Nath, Lydia, and Hannah's childhoods, Marilyn's young adulthood, and Jame's struggles to rise through the ranks as a Chinese American professor in small town Ohio. What it leaves is a heartbreaking portrait of how little we might truly know about the people we sleep in the same house with every single night. Overall: 4
Characters: 4 This is a hard book that's hard to find your footing with as the omniscient narration jumps through the heads of each the five family members at different times. There's no central narrator to cling to, and because of that, it's hard to get a true sense of who each of these characters are until the book is over and we've spent significant time in all of their heads. We don't get to see them filtered through a single point of view. We have to get to know them ourselves.
If there was a true main character in this book, it would probably be Marilyn. I found her story to be one of the most compelling of the family and more of the focus of the story. Growing up, all she wanted to do was become a doctor. She fought rampant sexism around every turn in her fight to pursue science and defy her mother's wishes to become a good housewife. Unfortunately, she gets pregnant right before her final year of college, and she's forced to withdraw, though she promises herself her plans are only paused instead of cancelled. Though Marilyn loves her children, it's clear she'll never find fulfillment, even as she masters each step of being the perfect housewife. Instead, the resentment just piles and piles on until she ultimately tries to disappear off to a community college in the neighboring town to finish those last 8 credits. Marilyn never gets to live out her doctoral dream, and you can viscerally feel her pain every time she encounters someone who succeeded in that.
Because she's never able to pursue her passions herself, she tries to pass them down to her first daughter, Lydia. She becomes resolute that her daughter will get to be a scientist, an independent woman, and never have to become a housewife like Marilyn was doomed to be. The issue is that she never consulted Lydia on what she would in fact like to be. Terrified her mom will disappear again like she did when she was a child, Lydia vows to be the perfect daughter and be constantly agreeable to her mom. This goes moderately well as she gets doted over, but by the time she's a teenager, she's crushed under science classes, staggering expectations, and a frustration at the fact that all of her agency to build her own life has been stripped away. She feels utterly lost in how to untangle the disaster, even as she starts to fail all of her classes.
To add to that pressure, Lydia is also dealing with a different set of expectations from James. Her father grew up the child of Chinese immigrants at an elite school. He never felt like he fit in with his peers, and he was often the victim of awful, racist attacks. Like Marilyn wants her daughter to get to be a scientist because that's the best possible life she can imagine for her, James just wants Lydia to be popular, to be normal, to be on trend. He clings to the perfect, traditional American life in the hopes it will deliver him all the security he lacked. Lydia doesn't click with her peers, though, and she ends up speaking into an empty phone line just to convince her dad that she is the popular, conforming daughter he wants so badly. She constantly feels wounded by his attempts to buy her things other teenage girls would like with no concern for what Lydia would actually like herself. She doesn't want to be bone crushingly normal, and what he sees as attempts to help her fit in strike Lydia as jabs against her personality.
Nath, the oldest child, observes all of this with a wounded detachment. He does doesn't see what Lydia's problem with being doted over is, and he sees her as ungrateful for being irritated at their "wrong" gifts when Nath isn't given anything at all. His frustration has gained steam over the years, and by his second semester of his senior year, it's starting to reach a boiling point. The more he detaches from the family and from Lydia, the more panicked she becomes because he's been her only confidant. When he heads to Harvard, she knows the rift will only become deeper.
Finally, there's Hannah. She's the afterthought, the pregnancy that accidentally thwarted her mother's attempts to leave and take a second try at her college education. Accordingly, Hannah has become quiet and observant. Though we don't hear from her much, Hannah has some of the most astute observations about Lydia and her life in the wake of her disappearance. While Lydia crumbles under the pressure of being the prized child, Hannah has to grapple with her parents' hardly remembering she exists.
None of these characters fully grasp the interior lives of the other family members, and they're so caught up in themselves that they're left to reconcile with how little they truly know each other when Lydia disappears. The disappearance, though, does offer a wake up call and a place to begin truly listening again. These characters are extremely realistic. Compelling and frustrating all at the same time. Everyone has a chance to play the hero and the villain of the story.
Plot: 4 The plot, like the characters, bounce all over the place. We move between many moments and decades all within the same chapter. At first, it's hard to see how all the fragments will come together, but there are some spectacularly satisfying moments where a scene will answer a question posed in another scene many chapters earlier that prove just how much care went into the plot of this book. You so rarely get a look into every character's childhood, young adulthood, and adulthood in the way you do here, and it is extremely gratifying to get to discover them through these scenes. I found myself becoming fond of places and eras that we got to visit outside the main timeline of the plot. Somehow, in all that skipping around, the points of the story never got lost, and each scene served to truly enhance the larger picture.
Writing: 4 While the book took me a minute to get into, I'm left utterly impressed at the ending. The writing starts out slow and extremely literary, as is the genre, but eventually, the pacing does pick up and the prose flow a bit easier. Maybe I got used to it or maybe the writing got stronger, but I enjoyed it more regardless.
I'm extremely impressed by how Celeste Ng writes about miscommunication without creating any kind of deep frustration within the reader. There is tension in the book not in the manufactured way that's all over fiction but in the way it happens in real life. Many bad choices piling up, many frustrating little actions leading to a natural boiling point. Nothing feels forced for the sake of the plot. And the characters aren't miscommunicating from a lack of communication in general. It's just more like they're all speaking a slightly different version of the same language, so the nuance gets lost in translation. No one feels they can fully say what they mean, and issues naturally arise from that as they do in almost every household. The book reveals so many fundamental truths about human nature but most strikingly just how inherently selfish we all are, no matter how we perceive ourselves. We will always see the world through our own lenses first, and the way we interact with the world and encourage our children to are deeply informed by our particular set of experiences and beliefs. It is nearly impossible to truly get out from behind those, so acts of showing love, of trying our best, can end up being isolating and alienating.
Another thing that struck me about this book was the both hopeful and hopeless ending. We do spend Lydia's final moment with her and get to see what ultimately happens, which is different than what everyone expected. As I try to say this in the most vague yet spoiling way possible, we get to see that Lydia is finally coming to the positive conclusions she needs to arrive at in order to truly live the life she wants. She's hours from turning everything around for herself and for many of her family members. And then she just slightly miscalculates. A freak accident happens and she doesn't get to act on her newly perfect plans. In that moment, it made me realize a fundamental difference between YA books and adult books. Here, Lydia was allowed to have her grand realization and then have all of that stripped away ultimately.
What I realized, though, as the final chapter came to a close was that the book was not utterly devoid of hope. Lydia's death did incite change, introspection, and an awareness of a need to listen to each other in her family. Though it's truly horrible that Lydia doesn't get to live out a full life, her death is not ultimately for nothing, and there is still hope at the story's close.
This was a much more intense reading experience than I bargained for and covered so many truly important and impactful topics in such a small amount of space. I now belatedly understand why Celeste Ng eventually took the world by storm with Little Fires Everywhere, and I will have to add that book to my TBR as well.
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