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Book Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

A cautionary tale about a dysfunctional family and the damage parents can do when living their lives through their kids.

Lydia is the favourite child of Marilyn and James Lee. At 16 she’s found dead in the local lake. What follows is an exploration of family life, race, lies, hopes, failures and the things we don’t say to each other.

Again, I was expecting a murder mystery here. There certainly is mystery, but this book is much more than that as Ng peels back the layers of the Lee family, it’s a slow build but it’s fascinating.

It’s set in small-town Ohio in 1970s America, James is Chinese, Marilyn is American they have three children Nathan, Lydia and Hannah. It is Lydia who bears the brunt of her parent’s expectations.

James, who struggled to fit in a private school and faced prejudice because of his race and poverty, longs for Lydia to fit in, be popular, the centre of social events. 

Marilyn, who longed to be a doctor wants her daughter to succeed where she failed, she doesn’t want her to become a home maker. She doesn’t want her to hear Doctor and automatically think ‘man’. Lydia’s pushed into scientific subjects, she goes along with both her parents in a desperate attempt to keep them happy, much to her own detriment. 

Nathan, the eldest of the three children understands the pressure his sister under, he dreams of escaping the family home. He’s accepted into Harvard, a moment overshined by Lydia failing physics. After Lydia’s death he becomes convinced local neighbourhood bad boy Jack is behind it. 

Hannah, the youngest of three children is largely ignored by her family, she lurks around in the shadows, she observes much more than she lets on.

I really felt for Lydia, as a teenager she struggles to fit in at school, she has no friends, at home she struggles under the pressure of her parent’s frustrations and the expectation that she will right their perceived wrongs. She’s drowning throughout the whole book.

James and Marilyn’s hopes for Lydia come from a good place, who doesn’t want their child to have friends? Who doesn’t want their children to believe that they can achieve anything they set their mind to? What Ng explores is what happens when you become blind to your child’s dreams and the effect that pushing them in a certain direction regardless of their own dreams can have; the damage parents can unwittingly inflict. That’s what makes this story so compelling, it could happen in any family.

When Lydia dies, the family have to confront a lot of home truths. It goes back in time to when James and Marilyn met, the prejudice they faced and still dealt with every day – her own mother telling her “it’s not right”.  The family look back on these moments as they grieve and try to understand what has happened to Lydia. They’ve to recognise what they’ve ignored and how they are as a family.

The characterisation was exquisite, it would have been easy to have James and Marilyn as flat, vile, unpleasant people, instead they’re fully rounded, and the reader can see their motivations for how they act. Marilyn grew up in a single parent family, all her mother wanted for her was to marry a ‘good Harvard man’, she’d always rejected the role of home maker but found herself falling into the role. James was bullied through school because of his race and poverty, he doesn’t want his children to suffer the same.

This is a story about a dysfunctional family learning about itself and getting to know the daughter they’re grieving for. It’s sad and poignant and a lesson in the things we don’t say.

radiosarahc View All

Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm

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