Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You

My book club chose to read Everything I Never Told You for our book club meeting in November.  The book follows the lives of the Lee family after the death of their daughter/sibling Lydia.  While it was well-written and thought-provoking, it wasn’t in my usual genre, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as others would have.

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.

So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.

A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.

This book is definitely character-driven, rather than plot-driven.  It focuses on each of Lydia’s surviving family members and doesn’t have a lot of action.  There is a sad undertone running throughout the story, too, which makes sense since Lydia has recently died in the beginning of the book.  These things combined to make me less engrossed in this story than I could have been.  It is a testament to the author’s stellar writing, though, that I not only finished this book, but was more or less interested the whole way through!

The Lee family consists of the following characters:

  • Marilyn, Lydia’s mother, who gave up her dreams of becoming a doctor in order to raise her children.
  • James, Lydia’s father, was the son of Asian immigrants (I think they were Chinese, but I’m not positive) who wanted to fit in with his predominately white classmates and, once he grew up, society in general.
  • Nath, short for Nathan, was Lydia’s older brother, who dreamed of space and astronauts while being shunted to the side by his parents in favor of Lydia.
  • Lydia, Marilyn and James’s daughter, whose shoulders were weighted down by the expectations her parents put on her that she should succeed where they had failed.
  • Hannah, Nath and Lydia’s younger sister, was the severely neglected child who just wanted to comfort everyone after Lydia’s death, but didn’t know how.

These characters are completely fleshed out really well.  We see their hopes, their quirks, their faults, etc. in the present as well as through flashbacks of their pasts.  I really liked how well we got to know each character.  I think my favorite character was Hannah because she didn’t get the love and attention she needed, which made me want to step into the story and shower her with attention and love.

In order to get such fleshed-out characters in Everything I Never Told You, the author shifted from one character’s perspective to another quite frequently.  These changes usually came without warning, often within a paragraph.  While I was able to follow these shifts most of the time, there were some spots where I got confused.  For example, on page 18, it switches from Nath’s thoughts to James’s thoughts.  I didn’t realize there had been a shift of focus and wondered why Lydia was asking her brother for money to see a movie.  I had to reread a few sentences before I realized that the focus had changed to James’s perspective.


Near the end of the book, we finally find out how Lydia drowned.  Basically, she rows out into the middle of the lake near her house in a rowboat.  She becomes somewhat euphoric and thinks that all her problems will be solved if she can just swim to shore despite not knowing how to swim.  It was just really weird that she forgot that she can’t swim.  And the way she became really optimistic was odd, as well.  I don’t know, it just seemed kind of anticlimactic and wasn’t at all what I was expecting would happen.


Despite the closure we get in the end of the book, I still wonder how these characters are going to behave in the future.  For example, is Hannah going to be able to interact normally with people when she grows up since she’s had so little affection in her life thus far?  Will she allow people to walk all over her in exchange for a little praise or attention?  Something tells me that Nath and Hannah won’t have great relationships with their spouses and/or children in the future.

Everything I Never Told You is definitely a character-based book, not an action-based book.  I don’t usually get sucked into character exploration stories, so the fact that this one was somewhat interesting to me was a surprise.  It definitely wasn’t unputdownable, but I did enjoy it enough that I was able to read it without getting bored.  I give this book 3 out of 5 stars!


Quotes I Liked:

But she’d felt as if she’d found a locked door in a familiar room: Lydia, still small enough to cradle, had secrets. – Pgs. 4-5


She replaces the phone number on the board, her damp fingers smudging the ink so that the digits blur as if in a strong wind, or underwater. – Pg. 6

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