Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Penguin Press, 2014; 298 pp
Reviewed by Kimberly Gibson
Celeste Ng’s debut novel Everything I Never Told You is a deep, excruciating study of a family’s psychological turmoil upon the death of their teenage daughter. The Lees, an interracial Chinese family living in 1970s Ohio, find themselves disintegrating under the painful mystery surrounding 16-year-old Lydia’s sudden disappearance and drowning.
To her mother, Marylin, Lydia’s death is nothing less than the second time Marylin’s great dream is lost—she had given up medical school to marry and raise a family, and Lydia was supposed to become the doctor she couldn’t be. To her father, James, Lydia was the charismatic, popular, all-American he was prevented from being as the child of immigrants. However, her brother Nath knows that neither of his parents are aware of the truth about their favorite child.
Through this powerfully emotional unraveling, Ng explores how the family’s grief plays out through the dynamics of their identity, ambitions, and society. Ng crafts a story that is both raw and thematically satisfying. It may seem strange to say this novel is satisfying, but the ending is beautiful in its inevitability. The novel’s main strength is the tight focus in its delivery—we get perfectly timed flashbacks to Marylin and James’ romance, formative memories for the characters, and Lydia’s inner thoughts leading up to the tragedy. These details serve as clues to understanding the characters’ motivations and heighten the plot’s drama.
Another strength is that the story’s multilayered plots echo is titular theme and resonate through the different timelines.
He can guess, but he won't ever know, not really. What it was like, what she was thinking, everything she'd never told him. Whether she thought he'd failed her, or whether she wanted him to let her go. This, more than anything, makes him feel that she is gone.
Celeste Ng’s story is as sophisticated as it is moving, and I am eager to read her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, which Penguin Press will publish this fall.