Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

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4 out of 5 distant stars

Oh my God. I’ve had a heavy reading weekend. And this was pretty dang heavy. The first 2 sentences of this novel is “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” Just punch me in the throat. This is about the Lee family, a mixed Chinese American family in the late 70’s and how the death of the favorite child tears the family apart and how they try to put it back together.

This is a great primer for how not to raise your kids! Sometimes, I just wanted to reach through the book and choke these people!! Marilyn was raised by the perfect 60’s housewife, who was so glad her daughter was going to Harvard so she would meet a Harvard man and get married. Marilyn went to college to become a doctor… but did what her mother wanted and fell in love. However, she turned that drive to not become like her mother on her daughter, Lydia. This has the same slow, soul-crushing outcome.

James was born in California to Chinese immigrants. They came at a time when everyone hoped the new world would give them the opportunities they wanted – but found a crowded market and an environment hostile towards people who are different. This made a huge impact on James. He is ashamed and disappointed that his own son is like himself; quiet and shy and doesn’t have a lot of friends, nose always in a book. He hardly notices his daughter Hannah, instead focusing all his attention on Lydia. He wants her to be friendly, to smile, to wear what is popular. He buys her a copy of How to Win Friends and Influence People, for fark’s sake. Who does that?

What’s so sad is that James and Marilyn love each other. But they don’t talk about their pasts and how it affected them. They’re the type of people who want to pretend difficult or scary things don’t exist. That means a lot of empty spaces in the conversation. Instead of talking to his mixed children about his own painful run-ins with bigots, James ignores any unpleasantness. Instead of listening to his wife’s desire to work and make something of herself, all he can think about his shame of his mother’s calloused hands. Instead of talking to her daughter about finding her own worth, Marilyn picks a career and aims her daughter at it like a missile. In this environment, Lydia can’t talk to her mom and say how being perfect is killing her.

I related to Lydia right away. I just found her sympathetic, and my heart just … I wanted to jump into the pages and hug her. She tries so hard. She’s got the spotlight of her family on her all the time, and under all that heat, she tries not to melt. But she is. Things are beginning to slip and she can’t find traction. She can’t speak up and tell them what is going on because she’s afraid that the family will start to come apart. Her brother Nath is her only source of understanding, but he can’t wait to get away. College is coming up and he wants to get away from Lydia’s spotlight, his father’s indifference, his mother’s inability to see him in Lydia’s glare. Then Lydia dies and all the guy wires stretching through the family snap and everyone goes careening away from each other.

I read this in less than 24 hours. It was one of those stories you fall into and before you know it you’re halfway through. The writing style was very good – not overly complicated or overly flowery. Even though it was set in the seventies, it felt very modern – I hope that mixed families don’t have it quite as bad, now. I come from a blended family myself and I saw and heard lots of slurs – but we had each other, and didn’t really give a shit what anyone had to say. But that was my experience – in a diverse city and an area with lots of mixed families. Also, 20 years later, so times were different.

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