Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng
Winner of the ALA/YALSA Alex Award 2015, given to one of ten books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18. The winning titles are selected from the previous year’s publishing.
In Everything I Never Told You, so much is left unspoken. Not to you, the reader; you’re smart enough to understand the price that will be paid for the silence surrounding all five members of the Lee family.
Living in suburban Ohio in the 1970s, this is a family full of secrets, of regrets, of unfulfilled dreams and hijacked ambitions. Of letters never sent nor received, of tchkotches stolen, of misunderstandings big and small, of innermost feelings repressed and silent pacts.
Part of this is possible because of the time period in which Celeste Ng sets this, her debut novel. (And may I interject and say that this is one hell of a debut novel.) This is one of those stories where the setting and time period is almost as much of a character as the characters themselves. Ng flawlessly captures every detail of life in the groovy 70s: sunbathing while coated in baby oil, the National Anthem coming on TV when the late-night station goes off the air, dialing a rotary phone and listening in on another person’s conversation.
Back then, in many ways society’s norms almost demanded us to capitulate to others’ needs, to project one’s unfulfilled ambitions onto one’s children. The idea that women could pursue a career in the sciences – or have any life beyond the kitchen – was still revolutionary.
“You loved so hard and hoped so much and then you ended up with nothing. Children who no longer needed you. A husband who no longer wanted you. Nothing left but you, alone, and empty space.” (pg. 246)
The central event in Everything I Never Told You happens in the very first sentence. “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast.” Lydia is the 16-year-old daughter of James and Marilyn Lee, who we learn within the first few pages has been found dead in a nearby lake. From there, Ng expertly unravels for her reader how James and Marilyn met (professor falls in love with student), married and became parents to Lydia, Nathan and – oh, surprise! – Hannah.
Everything I Never Told You was incredibly well-written and suspenseful enough to hold my attention. (And may I say that I typically shy away from a) books that have gotten a lot of buzz and are on everyone’s favorite list and b) novels with dead or dying children. I chose this because Celeste Ng grew up in Pittsburgh and I have tickets for her appearance here on June 1.)
My only issues with this (and the reason this is a 4 star rating for me instead of 5), were with the character of Hannah and a plot development that comes toward the very end of the novel. On the latter, I’m not mentioning this for spoiler reasons, and while I think I understand why it was there – another example of the cultural and societal norms of things unspoken – it felt gratuitous and somewhat unnecessary because the rest of the novel was so strong. And while I also understand why the character of Hannah was included in the story, at times she seemed extraneous and – true to her character – in the way. I’m not convinced that she was necessary for the reader to understand the theme of the novel.
Which can be summed up in a few lines found toward the novel’s conclusion, when the events leading up to May 3 (yes, once again I find myself reading a novel at the exact time of year it takes place) unfold for the reader’s full understanding.
“Instead, they will dissect this last evening for years to come. What had they missed that they should have seen? What small gesture, forgotten, might have changed everything? They will pick it down to the bones, wondering how this had gone so wrong, and they will never be sure.” (pg. 271)
Sometimes – oftentimes – our lives turn out differently than we planned. Terrible things happen. But by listening to what the people we love are and aren’t saying, admitting to our deepest wishes and exposing our most fragile insecurities, our lives and those around us have a chance to change for the better.
4 stars out of 5