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Everything I Never Told You

September 28, 2015

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, is a well-written and fast-paced read that will disappoint anyone who has already heard that it’s a bad idea for parents to try to live through their children.

At the beginning of the novel, from the first line of it, in fact, “Lydia is dead.” It’s a little like the British TV series Broadchurch, which begins with the death of a young boy and then reconstructs what happened. In this case, however, the dead young woman is sixteen years old and what happened to her, while not murder, came from entirely inside her own family.

Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, is a caricature of a 1970’s woman who wants to be liberated. She marries and gets pregnant before finishing college, and so she doesn’t pursue her dream of being a medical doctor. When her own mother dies, it’s the impetus for Marilyn to take steps to make her own life different from her mother’s. Instead of discussing it with her husband and telling her two small children, however, Marilyn takes off without explanation and lives for two months on her own, until the discovery of another pregnancy derails her plan to finish her college degree. Why she can’t go back to school after the baby is born is not apparent, except that she has given up on herself and transferred her ambition to her daughter Lydia, who will say yes to anything her mother suggests in the superstitious belief that this will prevent her from leaving again.

Lydia’s father, James, who grew up as the only Chinese boy in his small Iowa town, wants his half Chinese children to fit into the small Ohio community he has settled the family into. Disappointed in his older son, who reminds him disconcertingly of himself, James settles the weight of his expectations on Lydia, who is supposed to have the friends and the popularity that eluded James.

Lydia’s older brother Nath and younger sister Hannah are also caricatures, rivals for the attention of her parents and sometimes allies against their unrealistic expectations.

The saddest part of Lydia’s death is that when you get to the end of the novel, you see that she’d finally realized that it was up to her to assert her own ambitions for her life, but since she hadn’t been taught how to do such a thing in stages, her final demonstration that things could be different also fails. She tosses herself in the water, but she has never learned how to swim and can’t learn it all at once without any help.

Everything I Never Told You has a moral implicit in its title, so you can take the moral and skip the illustrative parable that goes with it. Here’s how I would phrase the moral of this story: don’t expect your children to do the things you always wished you could do; it will turn out badly.

And here’s another moral, less explicit in the novel because it’s harder to caricature: tell your children what they do well every chance you get, because what you want them to do well and what they want to do well are not often the same thing, and the weight of your expectations can keep them from launching at the right time to reach their most ambitious goals, the ones you didn’t even know you’d like to see them eyeing.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2015 1:49 am

    I saw this in my favourite charity bookshop over the weekend, I picked it up but didn’t buy. I’ll have to head back & see if it’s still there!

  2. September 28, 2015 9:09 am

    While this book sounds like something I’d enjoy – despite knowing the moral well and good from my own life – I just could not get into it. The beginning writing was so confusing and sloppy that I gave up after two pages. Maybe some other time. I haven’t ruled it out completely but I’m in no hurry to return to it.

    • September 28, 2015 10:32 pm

      Hmm. I thought it was pretty well-told, actually. It’s an interesting technique, to begin with the dead person and then show why she ended up that way.

  3. September 28, 2015 6:41 pm

    I say this with love, but man! You read the most depressing sounding books.

    • September 28, 2015 10:33 pm

      This one was loaned to me by a friend. My tastes are wide, and much of literature is what you consider depressing!

  4. September 28, 2015 7:58 pm

    Yeah, I was disappointed in this book too. There were some good bits, but overall it really didn’t do it for me.

    • September 28, 2015 10:37 pm

      I was so disappointed in it, in fact, that I compared it to a children’s book that is absolutely INFAMOUS in my house for having a moral that turns out to be the whole point of the book, Mick Harte was Here. Eleanor was so furious when she read that book in 5th or 6th grade that it became our example of a book not worth reading because you could just say to someone “wear a bike helmet” instead, and everyone would be a lot happier because they wouldn’t have had to invest in the characters and start to get interested in a story that would betray its readers so.

  5. September 29, 2015 4:43 pm

    Hmm, I think I will skip this one. Sometimes it is nice to not have to add something else to my reading list! 🙂

  6. October 14, 2015 11:30 am

    I think if the lightbulb hadn’t gone off for Lydia at the end I would have been very frustrated with the novel as well–I see what you mean now about the moral overtones. Of course, that lightbulb moment and the result is what is truly tragic about this book!

    • October 14, 2015 12:08 pm

      Yes, that Lydia realized her mistake made reading the book a little better.

  7. October 21, 2015 5:49 pm

    I see what you mean about the moralizing—there was absolutely a message here, no doubt about it—but I got so much more out of it than that. The extent of Marilyn and James’s fawning over Lydia and negligence of Nath and Hannah was a bit much, to be sure, but I think Ng did an excellent job of portraying what it might be like to be second- (and third-!) best in your own family, and how things we think would be obvious or would have to be shared eventually continue to go unsaid.

    Anyway, maybe it just wasn’t your book! I’ve got quite a couple of those that everyone else seems to love. 🙂

Trackbacks

  1. EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng [Bullet Review] - The 3 R's: Reading, 'Riting, and Randomness

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