2017 Reading List: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I was traveling for work this weekend so earlier last week, I downloaded another book for the trip – Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng. I am not sure how to pronounce that last name, so don’t ask.

I had thought this book was a murder mystery thriller. The first sentence of the book is “Lydia is dead.” And it is described as a “page-turner.” But it was less mysterious and gripping than I wanted it to be. It was about family and race and fitting in (or standing out). It was about the dynamics between parents and children and between siblings. 

In this book, Lydia is a 16 year old girl who is discovered dead in a lake. The parents immediately think that someone must have either killed her or lured her out into the lake knowing that she doesn’t know how to swim. Lydia’s brother, Nath, suspects the neighbor boy, whom Lydia had started spending more time with. The police say suicide, and as the book progresses, we start to learn why they come to that conclusion.

The book is not about the mystery behind Lydia’s death. It is about her parents and their lives and subsequent expectations for Lydia and their other two children. It is about fitting in to their small, Ohio community as an Asian family. It is about women’s place in the home or, if they choose, the workplace.

I really don’t want to give you more than that. The story was good, the characters were good, the ending was good. I don’t want to ruin it for you.

As I was reading, I couldn’t help but wonder if this situation could be actually true. One of the key pieces of the story was that the Asian family felt ostracized in their community of white families. There were examples of how white people treated them and things they said, and I felt like that couldn’t really be the way they were treated, even then, in the 1970’s. But what do I know? I am a white woman in a predominantly white community. I have never been that different. I don’t know what it’s like to not fit in. I try to be unbiased and welcoming toward all people in my own life, but maybe it really is that isolating to be the one different person in a sea of sameness.

I was annoyed at the lack of communication in this family. I feel like so many problems can be solved just by talking, by telling someone something. This wouldn’t even be a story if they all had just bothered to talk to each other. Lydia wants so badly to please her mother that she doesn’t even tell her that she hates her life. Her mother hates her life, but won’t tell her own husband that she always wishes she had finished med school and become a doctor. James had always wanted to fit in as a child and so he shoves his own children into boxes in a futile attempt to make them just like everyone else. Everyone has problems and no one will talk about them. What would have happened if Lydia had just told her mother that she didn’t want to be a doctor and told her father that she didn’t have any friends and couldn’t fit in at school?

The infuriating part of the story (not in a bad way), is that the reader gets to see everyone’s point of view. We get to hear it from all sides. We know what every character is thinking and so we can see how the pieces fit. But the characters will never know. They will never know how Lydia died, and they all have to live with their grief and their lies, their missed opportunities and their futile expectations.

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