Book Review: Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You Book coverI was browsing Huffingtonpost’s book section and came across a list of the Top 20 Must Feminist Reads for young adults. I wanted to read every single book but one did jump out at me. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is a gripping tale about a Chinese American family in small town Middleton, Ohio. In it Ng explores all the themes we’ve come to love in a YA novel: parental expectations, teenage confusion, love, the need to please, the bad boy, and American identity. We’ve all experienced one or more of these issues throughout our own lives, but Ng applies an unfamiliar and dark spin.

Everything I Never Told You opens with the sad realization that Lydia Lee, favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, is dead. It’s a shocking and unexpected way to open a book. There wasn’t a build-up. No “is she missing” or “where could she have gone” drama unfolding in the first few chapters. By starting the story with her death Ng is able to quickly cut to the meat of the storyline – reality versus the imagined.

Unlike her other two siblings, Lydia takes after her American mother. Blue-eyed and with blonde hair, Lydia is adored by her father and pushed by her mother to be the doctor she never got to be. Lydia is anything but an irresponsible child. She is smart, driven, responsible, and kind. In her parents’ eyes she is the perfect model of an American girl. Her other two siblings take after their Chinese father. They are clearly Oriental and thus unable to fully assimilate into the American way of life. Even though James was born in American everyone assumes he is an immigrant. For Marilyn, she is scrutinized as the white woman who defied conventions, gave up her dream to be a doctor, and married someone un-American; someone who doesn’t and will never fit in. So for the Lee’s, it is all on Lydia’s shoulders to be everything her parents could and will never be, and to validate their family’s place in America.

However, once her body is discovered this delicately woven and fragile narrative is dashed to pieces. In an effort to understand why her daughter drowned in a lake she had no business being near, Marilyn goes into her room in search of her diaries.

“With one finger, she tugs out the last diary: 1977. It will tell her, she thinks. Everything Lydia no longer can. Who she had been seeing. Why she had lied to them. Why she went down to the lake.

“The key is missing, but Marilyn jams the tip of a ballpoint into the catch and forces the flimsy lock open. The first page she sees, April 10, is blank. She checks May 2, the night Lydia disappeared. Nothing. Nothing for May 1, or anything in April, or anything in March. Every page is blank. She takes down 1976. 1975. 1974. Page after page of visible, obstinate silence. She leafs backward all the way to the very first diary, 1966: not one word. All those years of her daughter’s life, unmarked. Nothing to explain anything.”

Nothing. That is what Marilyn discovers. She is unable to find the answers to her questions and as the story continues to unfold secrets come to light and each character discovers something about themselves that is a lie. Racial tensions appear as each family member struggles with the loss of Lydia and begin to question their own place in the world. Resent and self-loathing manifest themselves through pointed-fingers and affairs. And questions are asked about what could have been done to prevent such a tragedy. By the end of the book the portrait painted of the perfectly happy and successful Asian-American family is no longer recognizable.

Everything I Never Told You is a wonderful YA drama that delves into the identity crises many interracial couples and mixed children face in America. It looks at the constraints placed and preconceived judgments people make and how that can often lead to tragedy. We learn about Lydia and her family not from what they decide to share with each other but from what they withhold and why. And as we all know – the truth always comes to light.