Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
This book was Amazon’s best book of 2014. Apparently the judges selected it because this type of book never gets published anymore and they wanted it to become the blockbuster it deserves to be. Given that it’s her first book, Celeste Ng definitely did a great job. The story focuses on the death of Lydia and how her family falls apart as a result. The chapters alternate between the past and the present, letting readers know why the characters think and act the way they do following Lydia’s death. All five main characters in the family come to life and I felt connected to all of them – which is really hard to do. The mother struggles to stand out. The father struggles to fit in. The son struggles to impress. Lydia struggles to fulfill her parents’ expectations. The baby sister fails to be noticed. Throw in racism, jealousy, and Harvard. It’s a big mess.
1) “A vision of life without her sister in it had flashed across her mind. She would have the good chair at the table, looking out the window at the lilac bushes in the yard, the big bedroom downstairs near everyone else. At dinnertime, they would pass her the potatoes first.”
At the very beginning, it’s unclear if this book is mainly a mystery murder case. That’s why Hannah (the youngest daughter) thinking this is noteworthy. It turns out that, although Lydia’s cause of death is revealed really late in the book, it becomes assumed that she committed suicide early on in the story. Still, this passage reveals how much Lydia had to live up to and how neglected Hannah felt.
2) “Everyone’s name was false. Everyone hoped not to be found out and sent back. Everyone clustered together so they wouldn’t stand out.”
This described the father James’ family when he was young. They had just come to America by pretending to be someone’s relatives, so they had to blend in with the other Chinese people. This foreshadows James’ goal in life to fit in in a society where he was the only Asian. He wanted it so much that he would push it onto Lydia, who ultimately couldn’t do so because she too was the only Asian.
3) “‘You’re sure that he doesn’t just want a green card?'” – Marilyn’s mother
Marilyn’s mother (Lydia’s grandmother) strongly opposed her daughter marrying a Chinese husband. They would not talk for years after Lydia and James got married. Subsequently, the death of Marilyn’s mother would trigger a series of events that led to the fallout.
4) “He couldn’t make enough – his wife had to hire herself out.”
James was always thinking about how people thought of him, and he did not want Marilyn to have to work. This was the mid 1900s, and Marilyn’s desire to be a doctor who could hold her own was frowned upon.
5) “James would think back to this day in the swimming pool, this first disappointment in his son, this first and most painful puncture in his fatherly dreams.”
James wanted his son to fit in. That meant playing sports and playing with other kids. But Nath would turn out to be interested in space and rockets. He got accepted to Harvard, but it was still not enough.
6) “It’s not your fault, her father had said, but Lydia knew it was.”
Marilyn ran away after her mother’s death. She didn’t want to be a housewife. Lydia thought that it was her fault that her mother had run away and would carry this burden with her forever. She would say yes to everything. She didn’t like physics. But her mother told her to do it. She didn’t like books for Christmas. But she said she did. She didn’t want her mother to run away again.
7) “Though Nath dreamed of MIT, or Carnegie Mellon, or Caltech, he knew there was only one place his father would approve – Harvard.”
8) “Lydia thought of her parents’ car: all the indicators and warning lights to tell you if the oil was too low, if the engine was too hot, if you were driving with the parking brake on or the door or the trunk or the hood open. They didn’t trust you. They needed to check you constantly, to remind you what to do and what not to do.”
Did cars 40 years ago do this? It’s something I’ve never thought about – how your car thinks you’re dumb.
9) “You can’t have too many friends.”
James always told Lydia. Except Lydia only pretended to talk on the phone. She had no real friends, and her parents never knew.
10) “Ever since that summer, she had been so afraid – of losing her mother, of losing her father. And, after a while, the biggest fear of all: of losing Nath, the only one who understood the strange and brittle balance in their family.”
Nath doesn’t get much air time in the first half of the book, but he turns out to be the key of the story. He was the glue in the family. When Lydia found out he was leaving for Harvard, everything tipped.
Everything I Never Told You has very memorable characters. The story is also so real. I feel like this could have happened to any family. Maybe not now because it’s so hard to hide things now. It’s harder to run away. There are cameras and GPS tracking. It’s harder to pretend. There’s Facebook. Kind of like Serial. That probably can’t happen nowadays.