Title: Everything I Never Told You
Author: Celeste Ng
Length: 297 pages
Leave it to me to take an 80 degree Christmas day to snuggle under the softest blanket to ever touch my skin and read the most beautifully depressing book. The blanket, a gift I received this morning, is the same color scheme as the Penguin trade paperback edition cover of Ng’s work. And as I sank into a cloud of a blanket, I also became lost within the pages of a story that begins: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know that yet.”
Ng’s book is a beautiful representation of a family trying to come to terms with their differences and contradictions – within society, among themselves, and in the depths of their own souls. A mixed marriage in a time when it was not only uncommon, but in some states still illegal, James and Marilyn are more different than their skin tone. James, desperately trying to blend in and fade into the crowd, while Marilyn is ever the opposite – wanting to be unique and important in a generation of women who are still encouraged only to please their husbands.
“[…] her mother promised to teach them everything a young lady needed to keep a house. As if, Marilyn thought, it might run away when you weren’t looking.”
Nath is the oldest of James and Marilyn’s children, the big brother who does his best to be his little sister’s only emotional support in a family dynamic that is oppressive, codependent, and full of too much subtlety and things left unspoken. Lydia, the people pleaser, is dead; and Hannah, the youngest of the children, is unnoticed.
Despite being a celebrated bestseller, I was surprised to find a number of poor reviews. People unhappy with the layers of the storytelling, of being spoon-fed too many sides of a story. People annoyed by how over the top and unrealistic the characters are, calling them allegorical or fairytale-like in their melancholy and their lack of cohesive expression. I find myself at odds with these reviews. I disagree completely, having loved the way Ng tells the story like a tide coming in… in three different tenses, the tale splashing over your toes, receding so you could see it from a distance, then rushing toward you to engulf not just your toes but the tops of your feet as well. Again. Again. And again. Until your whole body is submerged. Until the entire story has saturated you, body, mind, and soul.
People who do not recognize these characters have the blessing of never living in a dysfunctional family. People who cannot see how very real these portraits are, how they sting in their accuracy, have – perhaps – not lived long enough to see how someone’s childhood shapes them in a way that easily distorts the lives of their children in a slightly different way, and can keep going for generations until something tragic occurs to shed the tiniest bit of light on what has never been spoken aloud. People who don’t understand this novel, have never seen loss and grief played out… have never sat wondering how well they knew the person who has just left them forever. Have never sat and realized that when someone is gone, there are pieces of them no one will ever know, because no one can completely know another’s mind.
“The things that go unsaid are often the things that eat at you–whether because you didn’t get to have your say, or because the other person never got to hear you and really wanted to.”
This book is gorgeous, and a little bit awful. It will strike a chord and leave you questioning how your own actions will be perceived. I will keep my copy and I anticipate reading it again in the future.
“Before that she hadn’t realized how fragile happiness was, how if you were careless, you could knock it over and shatter it.”