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Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I originally read Everything I Never Told You for a book club and did not expect to adore it as much as I do now.

This book opens up with a neatly stated fact: Lydia is dead. But no one knows this yet. Who is Lydia? She is the second child in the Lee family, and when her body is found days later floating in a lake, her parents James and Marilyn as well her older brother Nathan, are devastated by the news. When police investigate the death, James and Marilyn are astonished to discover that although they always believed Lydia to be popular with a gaggle of girlfriends and to be excelling with top grades, she actually had the complete opposite: no friends and slipping grades.

Each family member tries to make sense of Lydia’s death by revisiting both their own pasts and sifting through memories of Lydia throughout the years. To start with is the tale of how James, a Chinese-American professor at the women’s college Radcliffe who has desperately spent his whole life trying to fit in, met Marilyn, a headstrong student who rebels against the homemaker lifestyle in order to pursue her dream of being a doctor. The year is 1957. By chance, Marilyn witnesses some of her classmates being racist to James and realizes that he, like her, has had experience with what it feels like to be different. Immediate sparks fly after Marilyn spontaneously kisses him as she and James embark on frenzied, passionate trysts and they fall in love with each other. An unplanned pregnancy causes the two to decide to elope, but at the wedding, Marilyn’s mother expresses disapproval to her daughter about her choice of groom, telling her she will regret her decision one day. This is the last time Marilyn sees her mother ever again.

After Nathan is born, Marilyn intends to go back to school, however, having Lydia (her second child) causes her to halt her plans for eight years. It is only when Marilyn receives word of her mother’s death and goes back to her childhood home that she realizes she has become the homemaker wife that her mother always wanted her to be, despite her own adamant wish all this time to be a doctor. Without leaving behind any explanation in writing, Marilyn ends up abandoning her family to pursue her degree. Her absence has a terrible effect on the family. James believes she left him because she got sick of dealing with being ostracized because he and the kids are Asian. Nathan seeks attention from his father but James begins favoring Lydia over him. Lydia becomes so fearful her mother will never return that she promises herself that if her mother does come back, she’ll do whatever her mother wishes in order to keep her from ever going away again.

During Marilyn’s time away, she thinks often of her family, but what finally breaks her resolve to run back to her husband and children is discovering she is pregnant again. In place of letting go of the dream of being a doctor, a new dream is born, one in which Marilyn vows to never box Lydia in as her own mother had by trying to make her conform to societal pressures and to instead encourage Lydia to be enpowering and choose her own future.

This starts out as well-intended, but everything goes downhill from here. Lydia says “yes, yes, yes” to everything her mother gives her because she never wants to lose her again, while Marilyn misinterprets Lydia’s enthusiasm for a genuine interest in science and math and begins pushing her to be a doctor one day. Both parents shift most of their attention to Lydia as Nathan is ignored. Before Hannah (the third child) is born, Nathan’s anger over constantly being overlooked reaches a boiling point and he shoves Lydia into a lake, despite knowing she cannot swim. This moment is important for later on towards the end of the book.

Back in present day 1977, the family becomes splintered. James deals with his pain the only way he knows how: with an affair. Marilyn is crushed under the grief of losing her favorite child. Nathan believes the neighbor kid, Jack, whom he detests, has something to do with Lydia’s death, as he knew Lydia was hanging out with Jack in the past. Hannah, ever the invisible one in the family, is the only one who has a perceptive sense of what may have happened to Lydia.

I loved that a good portion of the book is exploring the points of view of Lydia’s family. Their motivations, thought processes, and why they do the things they do. I realized, Ah, to understand Lydia, I have to understand the people around her first. I gained a new perspective on parents, too, from getting to know James and Marilyn and seeing that they want the best for their kids but how they went about it didn’t bode well. Consider it like translating words from one language to another. In this case, it was almost as if communication between parent to child, from one generation to the next, had its true meanings garbled up during translation. I also recognized in this book the tragedy of when parents themselves had hopes and dreams they never could achieve or fulfill, but when they see potential in their child, they unconsciously grab onto the dream of their child being what they could not be. There was also so much unsaid tension in each person with their issues that they never talked about with anyone. Even by the end of the novel, the traces of damage from years past are not smoothed over completely, but there is a kind of peace as everyone moves forward into new chapters in their lives. That kind of ache is one I am familiar with in my own life, and perhaps, you, the reader, might relate too. There is such complication in the sibling love between Lydia and Nathan, and the fact Nathan feels both love and resentment for his sister, whom he sees as his competition for their parents’ attention. Lydia relies so much on Nathan because he understands she is drowning under the academic and social pressures that their parents put on her. Yet Lydia is also unable to say no, out of a wish to not disappoint them, and keeps clinging to Nathan in a way that becomes quite selfish. Whether this was wrong for her to do, I don’t know, although it’s understandable since she was scared of her own reality and didn’t know what to do to resolve it.

Before I wrap up this review, here are some general opinions (and/or hints) I had of the book:

1) Nathan is referred by his nickname, “Nath”, which I found a bit ironic for myself since those are the first four letters of my (real) name.

2) James and Marilyn have true love, for sure.

3) I hate the woman James cheats on his wife with, not because she’s a homewrecker but her character fell very flat to me. I see her as just a character that was meant to give James more motivations for why he chose to do what he did towards the end. You will understand what I mean if you read the book. And yes, I did purposely refrain from using her name in my review since I think it’s too spoilery.

4) Jack is not as bad as he appears to be.

5) The actual scene of Lydia’s death is in the book, and how it truly happened and what was going through Lydia’s mind during it was a shock to me.

5) The title of the novel comes full circle by the last page.

That’s it! 😊 If you are currently reading the book or already read the book, drop me a comment with your current impressions of the characters and/or the story.

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