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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng- A Book Review

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 YouEverything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Everything I Knew Told Your by Celeste Ng is a 2015 Penguin Books publication.

As I began this book, my mind was a clean slate, with absolutely no preconceived ideas about it, so I was really surprised by it, and stunned by my emotional response to it. Once I started it, I literally did not move from the couch until I had turned the last page.

One of the main topics addressed here is the interracial marriage between a white woman, Marilyn, and an American Chinese man, James, who marry in the late 1950's, at a time when such an occurrence was very rare.

While this is a huge theme in the story and it is referred to often, I also picked up on the unhappiness I am sure many women like Marilyn felt in this time frame. Marilyn was smart, very smart, and wanted to be a doctor, (not a nurse), in a time when this too was very rare. Determined to have her cake and eat it to, she married the man she was in love with and started a family, but her career never materialized as planned. Marilyn eventually accepts her dream is never going to come to fruition and so it is her oldest daughter, Lydia, who must make up for this failing.

So, when Lydia disappears her parents are absolutely destroyed, and long buried feelings of resentment bubble to the surface and expose the cracks in this seemingly well adjusted and happy family.

It is hard to pinpoint who is the saddest character in the story. Lydia of course was a character that really struck a cord with me on a personal level. I know that pressure to live up to expectations you have no way of achieving, no matter how hard you work at it. Sometimes, we are are not born with the talents our parents possess and when you are supposed to live out their dream, failure to measure up is simply unacceptable.

Nath's character is hard to relate to at times. He's a guy, so his emotions are often masked in anger and bitterness. He desperately wants his father to support him and show pride in his son's rather impressive achievements, an area in which James failed utterly. Therefore, when Nath sees himself gaining an edge on Lydia, he turns away from her in hopes of finally getting a nod of approval from his father.

Then there is Hannah, the youngest child, who observes the family from afar and sees things more clearly than anyone else, but is often baffled by the actions of her family members. My heart ached for this poor neglected child who settled for crumbs thrown her way, but was just flat out lost in the shuffle, and perhaps Marilyn resented Hannah too, since Hannah's entry into the world effectively killed Marilyn's last ditch effort to finish school and achieve her career goals.

Then there is Marilyn whose character is both over the top and sad, a woman unfulfilled, terrified of ending up like her mother, while she is trapped in the same role of being a housewife and mom, she becomes so obsessed in her determination to save Lydia from this fate, she creates a toxic family atmosphere that is unhealthy for everyone and it ultimately backfires on her in a most awful, gut wrenching way.

James is just too passive. He never stands up to Marilyn, they never talk about things, he doesn't stand up for his children and I really couldn't understand what Marilyn saw in him. I was not impressed with him in any way until the very end when he appears to have a life altering epiphany that saves them all from total ruin.

So, the race issue is of course running in the background because it can't be ignored. The children born into an interracial marriage were thought to have special difficulty finding where they fit in. It was hard to make friends, to be involved in social activities and a plethora of other issues. James was of course particularly sensitive to race issues, and Nath also took racism to heart, but it is not a topic discussed within the family and Marilyn never makes an issue of it until her daughter dies.

However, I am not convinced in any way that being in an interracial family was at the root of Lydia's issues, but it was easier to place the blame on race than to take a long hard look at themselves. Outsiders, not knowing the general make up within the family were quick to hypothesize, but ultimately I felt it was more Marilyn's tunnel vision that led Lydia to her grave.

This story is sad, emotional, but utterly absorbing, and beautifully written. My heart went out to all the characters in the book, some of whom I felt more keenly for than others, but I still wanted them to come out in tact, even if they will never be completely whole again. The Lee's will soldier on, believing in second chances, and learning from their past mistakes, will do right by those still living, and in doing so, will honor the memory of Lydia. This is a very thought provoking and compelling read, a cautionary tale, ending with a message of hope and the promise of better days to come. 5 stars

Celeste Ng is the author of the novel Everything I Never Told You  (Penguin Press), which was a New York Times bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book, and Amazon's #1 Best Book of the Year 2014. She grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio, in a family of scientists. Celeste attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan (now the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan), where she won the Hopwood Award.  Her fiction and essays have appeared in One Story, TriQuarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, the Kenyon Review Online, and elsewhere, and she is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize.
Currently, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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