“Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng :: RAVE REVIEW

I READ A BOOK I ACTUALLY LIKED? I know, I can hardly believe it either. But here we are, with a book that I adored in so so many ways.

Overall rating: 4.75/5
Genre: Adult, Mystery, Historical Fiction
Page count: 292
Synopsis: Lydia’s body is found in a local lake, and her death slowly breaks her family apart. Slowly, we learn of the truth of that night, the foundations the family is built on as well as how they are treated, as an Asian-American family, in 1970’s Ohio.

Trigger Warnings: Death, suicide, racism, sexism, and affairs.

Overall Thoughts (Spoiler Free)

This book took me by surprise. I didn’t realise that it was going to be as heartbreaking and beautiful as it was. I thought it would be more focused on the mystery of Lydia’s death, but instead, it focused on the Lee family. It’s a very character driven book. We get a close analysis of the parent’s marriage and how, although built on true love, it wasn’t necessarily built on acceptance. We learn about Lydia, and how she was the favourite child, and that might have been the fatal flaw to the whole family. We learn about Nath and his ambition and loneliness. And we learn about Hannah – my favourite character – the youngest child who is often overlooked, yet she overlooks nothing.

I loved the pace of this book, and although it moved through time at its own ambling pace, the author used literary techniques to tell a mesmerising and convincing story, even though it felt completely new. Celeste Ng creates these detailed and flawed characters who you feel like you know, only a few pages in. Although they make bad decisions, Ng conjurs up just the right amount of sympathy in her readers. You’re angry with them, but can understand why they’ve made the decisions they do.

I was also obessed with the writing. Ng gets down to the nitty gritty detail of big moments, like pencil-marked dreams and the early evening sunlight, splashing across the tablecloth like melted butter. But she also uses the omniscient third-person incredibly. We dot between each character, sometimes multiple in the same sentence. Often, this kind of thing can feel heavy and amatuer, but Ng plays with this technique perfectly.

Even if you like plot driven books, I think you’ll like this because each page tells exciting stories, whether they’re dramatic flashbacks, or Hannah just observing her family as they grieve.

There were a few things about the book that prevented me from giving it a full 5 stars, but I don’t want to spoil you. For now, that wraps up my spoiler free review! Keep reading for spoilers!

Spoiler Review

I’m going to break my review up into a few main sections including themes, plot, characters, writing, and more.

Writing

Celeste Ng’s writing will pull you into this book right away, it’s undeniable. The opening lines of the book are: Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything, but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.

Beyond that, she describes each member of the family, in this beautiful image, and straight away, I have an idea of the dynamics.

I find Ng’s writing very stylistic, taking some creative liberties, but not for fun. Evertyhing she writes is deliberate, each detail carefully decided. I especially love the way she writes uncomforatble moments. James, the father, has an affair with his teaching assistant in the novel, and we see this affair blossom. It makes you feel itchy and weird, beacuse you can also see how much he loves his family and also, because his daughter is dead (although he doesn’t yet know). But the way Ng writes about Louisa (the assistant’s) eyes, and the ladybug in her hair, and it hanging on James fingernails is so beautiful, that it changes the whole tone of the affair without romanticising it.

I also noticed immediately the use of the omniscient narrator. I don’t know if I’ve read a book that uses the omniscient narrator the way that Celeste Ng does. She moves so fluidly between each character’s head, taking ownership of this style. I wrote about subverting stylistic rules in my review of “The Silent Patient” and how the author did that so badly. But Celeste Ng does it so well because she involves the reader in her decision. Ng couldn’t have written this book in the same way without the omniscient narrator. It allows her to tell the readers the different thoughts of each character and how they all deal with Lydia’s death differently. But it also allows her to be out of all characters’ heads, telling her own version of events. And this allows her to reveal details that the characters don’t even know yet, for example, Lydia being dead.

One of my absolute favourite writing elements in this story are those related to Nath. Nath wants to be an astronaut – and I’m so happy that he goes into space one day! – and so a lot of the metaphors about him relate to space. This includes: “Everything would shrink to pinpoints and vanish. Up there: nothing but stars.” and “permanent state of eclipse” and Lydia being “the reluctant center of their universe” and “he floated away, untethered” and “he sounded light years away”.

Ng also masters the art of sound and sight and smell. Here’s one line I loved: “Below the low thrum of a high up airplane she hears it: a faint lapping against her ankles, soft as the sound of her own tongue in her mouth. If she looks hard, she can see a faint shimmer, like silver tulle.”

Themes

This book covers a lot of important and interesting themes, including racism, sexism, grief, and bonds.

Racism

Lydia defies genetics and unlike her siblings, she has her white mother’s blue eyes. Immediately, she has become the favourite. For her mother, assumingly because she looks like her, and for her father, because all he wants for himself and for his family is to be accepted. Lydia has the upper hand out of all his children because of her looks. Celeste Ng introduces racism as a theme outside, but also inside, the home.

“America was a melting pot, but Congress, terrified that the molten mixture was becoming a shade too yellow, had banned all immigrants from China.” – Celeste Ng drops these word bombs of racism-truth throughout the novel and it makes you appreciate how hard Lydia’s death is in the face of the family being Chinese, and not white. Had they been a white American family, the detectives would have done a better job. And these lines make the story all the more heartbreaking.

Grief

I love this book a lot due to the way it deals with grief. Grief is such a big part of my life, especially right now, and Ng writes it so so well. When you’re in the beginning, raw, stages of grief, everything is hard. I especially love this line about that: Dinnertime comes and goes, but none of them can imagine eating. It seems like something only people in films do, something lovely and decorative, that whole act of raising a fork to your mouth. It’s not a complex sentence, but it’s her mix of delivering it simply and matter of fact, yet accessorising it with words like decorating and details like “raising a fork”.

Feminism

I’m stuck between whether this is a feminist novel or not. At some points, it definitely reads like that, but in the end – I’m not sure if it is. However, it definitely has a worthwhile commentary on feminism and double standards, and a “woman’s role” in particular. Marilyn devoted her entire adolescent to finding her space in a man’s world – and she did it. She was going to be a doctor. But then she got pregnant, and had to put these dreams on hold. And she really thought, because her male counterparts were doing it, that her dream would be waiting for her, sat poised for her return, like a well-trained dog awaiting its master. But of course – that isn’t the case, and really, honestly, that’s why Lydia dies.

Marilyn spends the next few years being a mother, and of course, she’s unfulfilled. Yet she loves her children, so much, more than anything. But – that’s not enough. I love this line that describes her feelings: She thought with sharp and painful pity of her mother, who had planned on a golden, vanilla-scented life, but ended up alone, trapped like a fly in this small and sad and empty house, this small and sad and empty life, her daughter gone, no trace of herself left except these pencil-marked dreams. She’s just so lost, due to the lack of society’s drive at educating and utilizing women’s talents in more areas than just the home. Everything she wanted, she lost. First, she gets pregnant with Nath, and has to abandon her degree. But a few years later, she abandons her family to complete her degree only to find out she’s pregnant with Hannah. Having a child, yet again, ruins her dreams.

What does this mean? That a woman can’t be a mother and a doctor? In the 70’s – apparently. Or was Marilyn’s purpose in life to be a mother? It doesn’t seem like it because look what her parenting did to her daughter. It’s a confusing commentary on feminism, but I think I’ve gathered my thoughts to be that the issue wasn’t necessarily Marilyn. She was just a byproduct of a sexist society. She lost her dreams, and her only option was to project them onto her daughter, which of course, was far too much pressure, and led to her daughter making the decisions she did that night at the lake.

Marilyn wanted nothing more for Lydia that to guide her, shelter her, tend {to her} as a prize rose: helping it grow, propping it with stakes, arching each stem towards perfection. Yet – that isn’t what Lydia wants. And so Lydia grows depressed, because she will never be the version of herself that her mother wanted her to be. There are a few scenes where Lydia fantasises about death, and so therefore, we begin to think that her death was a suicide.

For my final thoughts on feminism in the novel, jump to the heading “the ending”. 🙂

LGBT (Jack)

Jack is our only (that we know of) non-straight character. This is one of the details about the book that didn’t sit quite right with me. It’s great that we had a gay character and that he was very much accepted by the person he told about his sexuality, but I didn’t like how his coming out was a plot twist. It’s not a plot twist to be gay. I do understand though, that it was a bit of a plot twist that he had feelings for Nath, and not Lydia. However, throughout the book, Jack is written as a f***boy (albeit beautifully written), so it felt a bit stereotypical that this f-boy was actually gay. I’ve seen this trope overdone a lot, so I wasn’t a huge fan.

Towards the end of the book, Lydia kisses Jack but he rejects her and comes out, saying that Nath is who matters most to him. Lydia accepts him immediaetly, but is hurt. I personally wasn’t expecting this – but normally, this wouldn’t have been a surprise to me in a book, because a character’s sexuality isn’t a plot twist. But Celeste Ng writes about Jack’s sexuality as if it is. Jack really only exists to complicate the relationship between Nath and Lydia, and has no other real agency in the book. He doesn’t get his own storyline, really, nor does he ever help with the investigation, it seems.

It would have been nice if he had told Lydia about his sexuality, and they’d been there for one another, rather than her only hanging with him to piss her brother off, and him only hanging with her to check in on how Nath was doing.

Characters

Celeste Ng writes some of the best characters I’ve ever seen. She focuses on the very core of her characters (besdies Jack) rather than their daily movements, and teenage dramas. She focuses on what makes them cry, grieve, flail and fail, ignore their friends, lie, breathe, carry on. I’ve seen a few people say they couldn’t connect to the characters, and I do understand that, but I think if you’ve felt grief and real, raw pain, and had complex family relations, you won’t have a problem understading these characters.

And although Ng focuses on the small details, there’s still enough tension between them all to satisfy even the newest of readers. She captures the family dynamics so well: the grief of a missing daughter and what it means now that she’s gone, the tension building quietly and slowly, the cracks in everyone’s relationship. You’re left questioning – how are they going to cope with this death?

Between meeting the characters, Celeste Ng gifts us with these beautifully written flashbacks into Marilyn and James’ relationship. These flashbacks do an amazing job at setting up their relatinoship for the story. She uses two or three big anecdotes to summarise their relationship, rather than just telling her readers exactly what happened. It all reads as fresh and artful.

James was one of the most interesting characters for me. He loves his wife so much, and when she disappears, you can feel his heartbreak. Yet, he betrays his wife, too, by sleeping with Louisa. And something we never really find out is if he loved Louisa. There’s a line near the end of the book, where it talks about his regret for never seeing her again, that makes me think he did have strong feelings for her. But he has this impulsive Hamilton-Maria Reynolds type affair with her, after his daughter’s funeral, that feels like it was purely a distraction method for him, rather than true love. So that was one confusing thing. But at the same time, Ng writes this in such a way where I undersatnd why he sleeps with Louisa. Beacuse it is literally the only time he doesn’t have to think about his daughter, or her corpse, or her autopsy results, or where he went wrong.

I also loved the parallels between Marilyn and her mother, and Lydia and her mother (Marilyn). They’re devestatingly sad. Marilyn and Lydia both disappear, and it links back to how Marilyn felt about her mother. Ng writes about these three woman in such a powerful and heartbreaking way, while focusing on such fine details. Marilyn is different to her mother, in a few ways, though. Although she does want some agency and control over her children’s lives, she still loves them in such a pure motherly way. The scenes where she phones the house just to hear their voice but doesn’t say anything broke me.

Hannah is my favourite character, because Celeste Ng really uses her as a metaphor. She is completely unnoticed in this family (until the very end) yet she notices everything in the house. When Marilyn leaves her family, she takes a tiny token from each of her children. Little does she know, she’s pregnant with Hannah when she does this, and Hannah inherits this gift of attention to detail. I think this was a really clever and beautiful writing technique.

We take a while to warm up to Nath. We know he loves his sister and has ambition that goes overlooked. But the main scene that really drags him into the story is where he pushes Lydia into the lake, but pulls her back out again (when they were much younger). He was so angry that she was the favourite, and this was her punishment. This decision, this stupid little childish decision, in my opinion, is actually the key point of the whole book – and I’ll get to that in the “ending” section. However, because of this, I don’t know if I like Nath. I do feel bad for him. He deserves more than he gets. But he still has a super starnge relationship with his sister, caught somewhere between hating her and loving her a little too much, and I feel this could have been developed better / differently.

Speaking of Nath, I want to discuss his relationship with Lydia. Lydia is a very interesting character, and the author spares her no mercy even though she’s dead. We see the very worst of Lydia throughout the book, and very very rarely do we see the best. Ng focuses on how she is so scared of losing everybody in her family that she goes to these extreme measures to keep them close. With Nath, she hides all his acceptance material from Harvard so he doesn’t even know he’s accepted to the university until it’s nearly too late. When it finally comes out that he’s in Harvard, she hates the attention being away from her that right away, she announces that she’s faililng phsyics, just to have her parent’s attention back on her. She always needs to be one step ahead, but who taught her that? Marilyn. Speaking of, with her mother, she will say yes to everything her mother asks her to do, even if that means following her dreams instead of her own. She made this promise when her mother abandoned them. She promised herself that she wouold do anything her mother wanted if only she came home. And she did, so Lydia does.

What makes me sad about Nath, and Marilyn, and Lydia is that Nath has enough ambition and talent to solve everyone’s problems. If Marilyn had wanted to see one of her children succeed beyond belief, all she had to do was look at her son who had natural ambition and cleverness in all the areas that Lydia didn’t. But because of Marilyn’s need to prove the world wrong about a woman’s role, she didn’t even consider that her son could be amazing. And that’s where I think the commentary on feminsim gets a little lost / jumbled. All the pressure could have been off Lydia, and she could have striven in her own, unique, wonderful way, had she uplifted her brother.

But Lydia can’t do that because she doesn’t know herself. No one knows who Lydia is, including herself. She can’t even tell her family to treat her differently, because she has no idea what the alternative would be. Lydia has been so fictionalised by her parents that she can’t escape it.

The Mystery

The plot of this book, really, is the mystery of Lydia’s death, but that unravels in such a unique way for a “mystery” novel. And that’s because, ultimately, there’s not really a mystery to solve. Lydia’s death was an accident (of sorts) and so the characters all grappling for the truth is really a waste of time. Because the truth isn’t left behind somewhere. The truth has already happened. It’s in all their actions, all their mistakes, and that’s the heartbreaking part. They all contributed to her death, albeit an accident. But they were all the reason she was out at the lake that night (except for maybe Hannah – which is why her ending is so beautiful). However, Celeste Ng still manages to write a mystery novel, with the blank journals, and the condom packet, and Lydia’s strange relationship with Jack – readers are so convinced that somebody murdered her. I liked the novel taking this direction as it carried me through the novel, and made it a page turner, while still focusing on what was important.

The Ending

For most of this book, I thought that Lydia did kill herself, and this was the story of how family life and pressures can affect your mental health negatively. I would have undersood that – but Ng flips the book on its head and I was unsure if I liked it. However, I can appreciate what she did.

Lydia dies, and with her death, Marilyn’s dreams die. She has lost her dream of being a doctor (although it technically isn’t too late if she really wants it), and so she projected that onto her daughter. But Lydia is dead now, too, and what has Marilyn’s life been for? She’s always been so wrapped up in achieving the next thing, becoming a symbol of a clever woman, that she never really lived in the moment. She wasted her entire life, and I believe this directly links to Lydia’s accident.

But Nath, too, is responsible for the accident. He’s so mean to Lydia in the last month of her life that she makes almost all her decisions because of him. She hits Hannah. She is mean to Nath. She confides in Jack, a person her brother can’t stand. And all of these things lead to her going out onto the lake that night, but also – leave her family with the thought that her death was a suicide, when in reality, it was an accident. (Yet, they’ll never ever find that out. Ugh.)

Lydia goes down to the lake in the middle of the night, just before she dies, to think. That’s it – she just needs a little headspace. Her home life is suffocating. Being the favourite is a lot of hard work – but it wouldn’t have been so suffocating to be so loved if James and Marilyn had loved their children equally. Lydia thinks this over, her relationship with her parents, and subsequently, her relationship with Nath. When she thinks of her brother, she is reminded of how he saved her life – yet let’s not forget that he almost killed her just a few seconds before he saved her. It’s sort of like that Stockholme Syndrome, where the victim falls in love with their captor. Lydia feels she owes Nath something because he saved her, but he also led her to this place that night.

It’s complicated, but when he pushed her in the lake years ago, he told her to kick. Kick. And she did, and she survived. On this particular night, sitting out at the lake by herself, she has a realisation that she is too passive in her life. She decides she’s going to take the reigns and tell her parents that she doesn’t want to be a doctor. She doesn’t want to be popular. She doesn’t want to fake having friends anymore. She will do anything. And she has this relationsion that she can do anything – and that’s what kills her. She can’t swim but she takes a boat out into the lake, and decides to swim back. She believes she can because she’s been empowered by her realisation. She believes she can because Nath told her to kick, and she survived.

But now – she drowns.

At first, I wasn’t convinced by this, but I think it’s actually quite deep (yet I have to think quite hard). Initially, I thought it was strange because she was having such a logical and mature realisation, that I couldn’t understand why she would go into the water when she knew she couldn’t swim. But then I thought: she’s trying to prove to herself that she can do anything. It’s just a short swim. Nath taught her that she can kick, and she’ll be okay. Her parents have convinced her that she cannot fail – it’s not in their family’s nature to fail. But at the same time – they’ve set her up to fail. Nath isn’t there to hold her hand; and her parents aren’t there to check her mistakes – and so she drowns. And maybe this is a representation of being an Asian woman in the 1970’s. You can convince yourself that you can do anything, even just a short swim, but in reality, the world isn’t made for you. Society hasn’t taught you how to stay afloat. You can’t do anything, especially if it’s something outside of the lane that has been so clearly carved out for you.

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