In Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, a teenage girl is found dead, drowned in a lake. Her family is left reeling with unanswered questions and the realization that perhaps they didn’t know as much about her as they had thought. Her death prompts them to reflect upon how they got to where they are as they grapple with her death and try to move forward.
The Lees are an interracial family; the father, James, is of Chinese descent and the mother, Marilyn, is Caucasian. When she was younger, Marilyn hoped to be a doctor, but ended up passing on those ambitions in order to raise her family. The story tells us about their meeting, their marriage and their difficulties in the wake of their daughter Lydia’s death. Meanwhile, Nathan or “Nath,” their older son, tries to find some resolution in the void his sister leaves behind, but ends up channeling his frustrations towards Jack, a classmate Lydia had been spending increasing amounts of time with before she died.
Everything I Never Told You is a brisk, 200-something pages. The story itself is rather unassuming and, with the exception of the death of Lydia, without many narrative “hooks.” I think a lot of books over-rely on deus ex machina-type events or extreme circumstances or soap-opera-y type plot twists to move their stories forward, to the extent that they become a hard to really relate to. In contrast, Ng’s novel stays focused on telling a story of a few people, of unfulfilled ambitions and alienation and small disappointments. It’s an empathetic and sensitively-written story of an imperfect but well-meaning family, doing their best to live achieve the American Dream and cope with setbacks and grief, with some elements of mystery thrown in.
Considering it’s one of the few portrayals of a Chinese-American family in popular fiction, I can’t imagine it was easy to toe the line between underplaying vs. making the book entirely about race, but I thought she did a good job with it. While the book touches upon the topic of race quite a few times, at it’s core, it’s a book about family dynamics much more so than race.
In the end, I can’t say I felt all that strongly about this book. It is interesting at times and there were things I think it does well, but wouldn’t go so far as to say I found it all that compelling or revealing. The story felt a little muted to me, like it touched upon topics but was hesitant to really get its hands dirty.
As this is Celeste Ng’s debut novel, I was mostly left with the feeling that she is certainly a capable writer, and I’d be curious to see what she comes up with next. She recently published her second book, Little Fires Everywhere, which was greeted with fairly solid reviews all around, so there’s a pretty good chance I’ll pick it up at some point and add it to my ever-expanding list of books to read.