Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng: Book Review
I've been on an audiobook tear lately, starting with Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere (which I'll review separately, but in short didn't find that compelling) and Everything I Never Told You, the latter of which surprised me in how much it swept me up and made me think. In fact, I breezed through all 11 hours of this recording in 2 days, finding it difficult to stop once I was sucked into the complex, multi-dimensional and tragic lives of each Lee family member and the central mystery around their middle daughter's death.
Part of it was the beautiful writing, which reads easily and poetically, painting clear imagery of each family member and offering us access into their deepest of thoughts, both conscious and unconscious. Another part was the realistic and deeply heartbreaking portrayal of being an Asian American and a bi-racial household in the America of the 1950s to 1970s, with unnerving parallels to the struggles around racism and conformity that still hold true today. And lastly, the suspense - what exactly happened to Lydia, the daughter who we the reader learn immediately is dead? We weave through timelines and generations to uncover everything that built up to this conclusion, and what's most satisfying is that ultimately we learn exactly what happened, but are still left with questions.
I read an interview Ng gave on her writing style, which talked through how one of the core tenets of being a writer is to anchor a story in cause and effect. Unlike the real world, where these links may blur or be undiscovered, fiction can clearly draw the lines between how one or many actions ultimately converge to a particular ending. That's the best way to explain this story, as in a roundabout way we learn exactly the forces that went into play towards Lydia's death. The narrator takes turns inhabiting the backstory of each of the four remaining Lees, from their Asian American father James who has struggled his whole life to feel a sense of belonging in his own birth country, to their white mother Marilyn who sacrificed her career goals for her family, to eldest son Nath who seeks escape from his household above all else, and youngest daughter Hannah who has been ignored by her family her entire life.
We're also given a light into Lydia, prior to her death. We see the unique struggles she faces as the center of her parent's attention. I'll dive more into this in the post-spoilers section, but I found it so fascinating that Ng at multiple points refers to Lydia's unusual blue eyes, which are the core reason why her parents always saw her as the emblem of hope for realizing their own thwarted dreams. Unlike her siblings, who are more clearly Asian in their appearance with the expected brown eyes, Lydia defied genetics and ended up with her mother's blue eyes, a force of fate that writes the entirety of her life. Because she was so clearly set apart from birth, each of her parents hold her to be the one that will complete their own story and beat the odds that held each of them back.
As an Asian American, I remember also having a fascination with blue eyes when I was young, often wishing I had them over my less interesting brown ones. It seems to be a common motif in American minority literature, with Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye also coming to mind. Blue eyes symbolize to so many the impossible racial aspiration that US society has unconsciously written for us. Pick up any novel in the US, and I have no doubt that fair-skinned, blue-eyed heroines far outnumber the others. It's interesting to see this obsession both supported and subverted in Ng's writing. Lydia is at once the most important character in the book around which everything revolves, and also an emblem of frailty and impossibility.
But while Lydia is the center of this, James was to me the most personally relatable and tragic. I saw in him so much of the struggle that Asian Americans underwent through the course of the US's turbulent history, indeed, the struggle that nearly all minority races have undergone to find a place here. He finds that despite how hard his parents work or how hard he works, he can never overcome what genetics has provided him - his Asian appearance. He stands out no matter how much he practices his English (not speaking Chinese at home to prevent an accent), no matter how much he reads up on the latest games or white American trends. As much as he tries to make friends and be accepted, he simply cannot in that era of American society. His own outside status in the only country he has ever lived in and known was shattering to read about, and cut deeply as someone who knows firsthand all the expectations that immigrant families come to the US with. The fact that even his children, third generations by that point and half-white, can't overcome the stereotypes in the community they spent their whole life in furthered the pain as a reader.
Ng's spotlight on the Asian American narrative is one of the most rewarding aspects of this book, as I can't think of any other novel that has addressed the issues so directly and fulsomely. It wasn't even something I realized I had missed in all my years reading English literature, and it was only after experiencing that I realized how important it is to see representation on this front.
Ultimately, I was surprised by the ending. Everything we read up until that final moment when Lydia slips herself into the water indicated that this was, as the police ruled, a suicide-driven death. Yet Ng doesn't let us off so simply. We spend the chapters leading up to this final event primarily with Lydia, finally understanding her struggle and inevitable failure to meet her parents' expectations. We see her fail attempt after attempt - from learning to drive with Jack, to her physics exam, finishing The Sound and the Fury, her driving test, hiding Nath's admission to Harvard and even her desperate attempt to lose her virginity. Her life is clearly slipping out of her control, which I would argue was mainly due to herself. She seems to lose all semblance of control over her own responses and actions - Hannah sees she only reads partway through her book, and doesn't even attempt to pick up her driving pamphlet before her exam.
Her failure to suddenly learn how to swim, and in the process lose her life, is clearly what all the other failures have been building up to. At the point in which she does this, it shouldn't surprise any of us that she should fail (indeed, we all know she will fail even as she thinks through her plans on the boat). But even if we didn't know that upfront, the multitude of failures surrounding her could lead us to no other conclusion. What we're left questioning is why she thought she could suddenly succeed. What made her so out of touch with her own ability to conquer her reality?
Drowning is both a metaphor and a literal event in Lydia's life. She drowned in the expectations and hope her parents placed on her, as well as in the pressure she ultimately put on herself to always make them happy. Her belief that she needed to conquer this, by saving herself from drowning in a literal sense, is what ultimately drove her to the lake and to her death. This false optimism, this complete delusion, is left unexplained and for us to ponder. Perhaps she had always been that way, from the moment she made that promise as a child to please her mother. Rather than confronting and recognizing the reality that made her mother leave, she lives in a delusion believing that her very acquiescence is what will hold her Marilyn at home.
Indeed, she carves out a world of falsehood and self-delusions that eventually shape her entire existence. The staged phone calls with friends in front of her father, the cheating that helps her pass biology, the forced enthusiasm every time her mother asks her if she wants to do something. Because her entire existence has been founded on this misplaced delusion that she can pretend her way through things, it's a natural extension to have that be taken to the extreme and for her to think she can swim her way to a better version of herself.
As much as she did carry the story and as much as her arc made me ponder, I found Lydia a tough character to like or even sympathize with. Her actions border on ungrateful and out-of-touch, and I'm not sure I like Ng's implied cause-and-effect storyline, which holds Marilyn's 3-month absence in her daughter's childhood as the ultimate cause for the decade-later dismal turn of events. I find novels reliant on childhood trauma to often be overwrought, and while elements of Lydia's dynamic with her family were compelling and even logical, this line of rationale feels too simplistic an answer. What I instead see is not a direct line of blame between her parents and her death, but a direct line between her own mind's fragility and her decision to go out on the lake that night. These were factors out of her parent's control, though at the end it was their responsibility for not having seen through their daughter's true motivation and deception early enough to forestall this conclusion.
Lydia's death ultimately unveils to James and Marilyn the pressure each of them unconsciously placed on her. The discovery of the Betty Crocker cookbook, an item that made me tear up multiple times in its existence across the story, helps teach Marilyn that lesson. Her daughter saw the tears etched into the book, and sought to protect her mother from the sadness she knew it represented. Marilyn's own mother followed its tenets and every line, hoping it would bring her and her daughter closer to happiness (although it did neither). Ultimately it becomes the final symbol of mother-daughter love and futility, of the complex relationships that no cooking techniques or recipes can stand a chance at resolving.
The cake Marilyn bakes Lydia for her 16th birthday is the ultimate representation of this. She does it to show her daughter love and to bring her happiness, but instead (and unknown to her) it only brings added pressure and a sense of entrapment. Cooking is shown as a representation of familial emotion and baggage throughout the story - for James, his eating of Marilyn's Thanksgiving meal and Louisa's char siu bao capture different moments of love, one revealing another opportunity to fit in with the norm of American cuisine and culture, and the other reminding him of the culture he threw out and hid from his whole life. For Nath it's similar, with the hardboiled egg (which he never attains on the pages of the book) representing the mother that left and never returned in his childhood. For Marilyn, cooking itself represented a burden, an action that she held responsible for driving her mother's small-minded, domestic view of the world.
Despite the tragedy underlying Lydia's death, the book ends on a hopeful note. Nath and Hannah are ultimately the true torchbearers of the better reality both Marilyn and James sought after. It's only after the death of their blue-eyed daughter that they seem to realize that. It's also only then that Nath realizes the truth to Jack. Jack's thread through the characters, starting as a perceived villain when we only see Nath's perspective, to becoming the truest friend to Lydia and representation of a better future for Nath, was one of my personal favorite arcs. He demonstrated the hope and brightness that can lie where we least expect it.
For the depth of the characterizations and the gripping storyline through the end, I highly recommend Everything I Never Told You. I hope there will be a TV adaptation of the story (not a movie as the short run-time likely won't do this justice). When they do, I hope they carry forward the air of melancholy and hope that inhabits every word of the novel.