This book review is intended for readers who have already finished Everything I Never Told You! My analysis contains several spoilers.
The Slanted Spines February book was Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng! In this haunting portrait of the Lee family, Ng illustrates a web of complicated relationships and unspoken emotional turmoil between the five members of a Chinese American household in smalltown Ohio during the 1970’s. Everything I Never Told You is a novel that begins with the death of Marilyn and James’ middle (and favorite) child Lydia, and as her mom and older brother Nath swear to discover the root of her senseless death—her body having been discovered in the nearby lake—and as her dad and younger sister Hannah struggle to cope with her absence, a myriad of secrets within her family are unveiled.
Everything I Never Told You is Celeste Ng’s first published novel, and since its publication, she’s released a second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, which has been another widely acclaimed book. Ng was raised in a family of scientists, and as a local to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Shaker Heights, Ohio, she commonly depicts the region in her writing. She studied at Harvard and earned her MFA at University of Michigan.
I flew through this book, and despite how sad it made me, I enjoyed reading it. So, going off on a slight tangent, here’s a fun fact about me: I give all the books I read and like five stars on Goodreads. (I hope this doesn’t upset my book-reading peers who highly rely upon accurate Goodreads book ratings.) It’s not the best method, because then when I read a book I REALLY like, I have to rate it like all the books that were merely likable. The only reason I do this is because it saves me the trouble of wasting time deciding how many stars to give it, since it’s just a Goodreads review.
But since I’m actually writing a detailed review, and because I recently realized that I am far too nice in my reviews for fear of hurting anyone’s feelings, I am going to write with integrity and honesty; I am not going to say that Everything I Never Told You is a phenomenal book, and it was beautifully written and masterfully structured. Instead, I’ve thought it over, and my conclusion is: Everything I Never Told You is pretty good.
I mean, you should still read it. Just because something’s not perfect doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still try it. But now I’m going to tell you why it was “pretty good.”
I enjoyed Ng’s writing. Although sometimes a little uninspired or too far-reaching in her metaphors, her writing is easy to follow and the way she frames the story kept me reading for more, although some parts do lull more than others. I like the parts when she uses her craft to really grab the reader’s attention and bring them into the moment. For example, in this first quote, the reader sees his mother turn into Lydia and then turn back to Mom, just as Nath imagines. The narrator tells us, “There is Lydia.” And then takes it back.
Their mother steps back into the kitchen, and for one glorious fraction of a second Nath sighs with relief: there she is, Lydia, safe and sound… Then Lydia raises one hand to her brow and becomes his mother again.Pages 2-3
Here’s another example:
She touches her fingers to her temple, as if she has a headache, and closes her eyes. To Nath’s horror, a dark drop of blood runs down the side of her face—no, it’s only a tear, stained black by mascara, leaving a dirty gray trail on her cheek.Page 64
Although there are a lot of passages I loved, there are some that are a little weaker for me. This next quote is interestingly an example of both—it is partly trite and partly exquisite.
I could have done that, Marilyn thought, and the words clicked into place like puzzle pieces, shocking her with their rightness. The hypothetical past perfect, the tense of missed chances. Tears dripped down her chin. No, she thought suddenly. I could do that.Page 96
The first sentence is blah. Things have been put together “like puzzle pieces” millions of times. Also, I’m sure there’s a more fascinating way to say that they “[shocked] her with their rightness.” The blandness of this writing probably would have gone rather undetected for me if it weren’t juxtaposed next to such a beautiful line as “the tense of missed chances.” Clearly this is a moment of epiphany for Marilyn, and so she deserves much more excitement than a Monday night puzzle comparison. (No offense to puzzles.)
Ng builds up scenes where important moments happen—for example, when Nath saves Lydia after pushing her into the lake as children. She slows down the action, narrating it in slow motion so that the reader understands the intimate drama occurring, and then releases us back into the resumed scene. Such as this:
He did not know exactly how it had happened but everything had gone askew, like a teeter-totter unevenly weighted. Everything in their life—their mother, their father, even he himself—slid, now, toward Lydia…
Whenever he remembered this moment, it lasted forever: a flash of complete separateness as Lydia disappeared beneath the surface.Pages 153-154
Sometimes during significant scenes, what Ng is building towards is not stated well, or made clear. Sometimes I wondered, What is this getting at?—if not the obvious (which means she’s overstating it). What deep, vaguely described emotion is Nath feeling in this moment? Oh—love and hatred for his sister? There are just certain times when writers shouldn’t bury their meaning under their words; there’s no point of coding it from the reader. I think sometimes writers struggle so much to “show, not tell” that they over-complicate certain scenes where it’s perfectly fine to be a little more cut and dry.
But other times the writing is excellent. Like a cold, soft bite of ice cream melting in your mouth on a hot day. (Can you tell I’m already dreaming of summer?) And these moments of “dessert writing” far outweigh the mediocre times, so I’d say that the writing is the element of this story I enjoyed most.
Ng also very successfully painted the time period. Talking on the landline in the hallway, slamming it on the receiver, the referenced TV shows, the Baby Soft perfume. The time period influenced the events in the story while not interfering with the delivery.
- What was one of your favorite passages?
- Did you feel that this story was well-paced?
The characters in this book are so frustrating. Nobody talks to each other about how they feel, and so everyone in the family is constantly frustrated and sad, but won’t say anything, and then later they just lash out at each other.
[James] did not understand why he said these things to Nath, for that would have meant understanding something far more painful: that Nath reminded him more and more of himself, of everything he wanted to forget from his own boyhood.Page 156
For example, the father James has always been unpopular, and he wants his son Nath to have a better life than he did. James just wants Nath to be well-liked and have friends, but rather than just tell him this and be honest about his motives, he instead criticizes Nath and makes him feel even more like a loser for not having friends. James has an entire affair and then has the audacity to hit his kid for giving him flack about it!
James, in an ultimate act of scumbaggery, cheats on Marilyn with some younger woman—a Chinese woman, who I was glad he was friends with but I did not want him to sleep with her. Repeatedly. As a way to “grieve” Lydia’s death.
Oh, but we can’t let Marilyn get away with leaving her family to go back to college without leaving so much as an intact note when their children were still toddlers. Not even a legitimate phone call? I don’t understand why she didn’t just tell James that she was going back to college and she would be back in a few months. Then at least her family could have some peace of mind. She just up and left two loving children and a husband behind and thought they wouldn’t be longing for her every moment of her absence, like they would just forget about her and not worry that she was still out there or not, alive or dead.
Honestly, the parents—while their intentions are mostly good—are pretty crappy to their children. James watches the kids at the YMCA to taunt and say racist things to Nath but does nothing about it, because, well, that’s just the way it is and he better get used to it, huh? Then never discusses this with Nath! No, “Hey, I saw what happened. Those kids are jerks, I love you, son.”
Also, Marilyn outright favors Lydia and is fixated on her as though she doesn’t have another daughter and a son. Ng makes a point of reminding us that Hannah is frequently batted away; in fact, her character trait is that she’s the neglected youngest. Then, Nath struggles to retain even a moment of his parent’s attention, as everything he does is constantly overshadowed by Marilyn’s incessant preoccupation with Lydia. And when Nath does get a moment to stand in the spotlight, Lydia intercedes with news so startling to her mom (she’s failing a class) that they completely disregard that he was accepted into Harvard.
Hannah, as if she understood her place in the cosmos, grew from quiet infant to watchful child: a child fond of nooks and corners, who curled up in closets, behind sofas, under dangling table clothes, staying out of sight as well as out of mind, to ensure the terrain of the family did not change.Page 161
Lydia loves her brother and wants him to stay rather than go off to college, yet she projects this into unproductive outlets like stealing his mail from Harvard, hanging out with Jack which she knows will bother Nath, and mouthing off to Nath. She doesn’t want to be stuck at home because her mom is constantly up in her business molding her into Super Woman, which Lydia just doesn’t care about, except she doesn’t want to upset her mother, whom she’s afraid of losing again.
Meanwhile, when the neighbor kid Jack is actually nice to Nath, who other kids are generally prejudiced towards, Nath is a total jerk and develops a grudge against Jack. Nath is so defensive that he rejects any iota of compassion from Jack and flips it into a rivalry, when it turns out, Jack is genuinely just trying to be nice to Nath because he has feelings for him.
And so everybody’s really crappy to each other—honestly, Jack is the only good character—because nobody knows how to talk about their feelings. So a lot of this book had me feeling kind of crappy, just about how lousy they treated each other, and how much everyone was secretly aching but felt trapped in their role. Marilyn never wanted to be just a mother. James wanted to be a professor at Harvard. Both of them seemed like their lives were a disappointment because of their family. The kids picked up on this and felt worse for their parents’ projections of inadequacy onto the children. Real sucky family dynamic.
- How do you feel about the clear favoritism of Lydia?
- Who was your favorite character and why?
- Did you feel that the characters were well developed?
I spent most of this book going back and forth on if I thought Lydia had committed suicide or not. At first, I knew she hadn’t, but as details unfolded, I started wondering if it could be; it turned out it was an accidental suicide. Although I think it’s a little foolish that Lydia thought she would be able to swim, having never successfully done so, in a lake, at night, by herself—you see my point?—I do like that she died because of something that was supposed to be a turning point in her life, a start of a much needed change, feeling hopeful. It’s tragic, actually, and painfully sad, but at least she passed away while being hopeful for a better future? (That’s my silver lining in this book.)
The main thread takes place post-Lydia’s death as the family deals with this horrific loss. Throughout, Ng weaves accounts of both Marilyn and James’s lives leading up to modern day, and gradually provides more insight into supporting characters.
It was kind of weird reading Everything I Never Told You right after reading Where the Crawdads Sing because they’re both plots driven by a death of a young person. Except, that book was lonely because Kya had no one; this book was lonely because the Lee family had each other but took them for granted.
- Did you expect Jack’s secret feelings towards Nath?
- What would have improved the plot for you?
Sometimes you almost forgot: that you didn’t look like everyone else… Sometimes you didn’t think about it at all. And then sometimes you noticed the girl across the aisle watching, the pharmacist watching, the checkout boy watching, and you saw yourself reflected in their stares: incongruous. Catching the eye like a hook. Every time you saw yourself from the outside, the way other people saw you, you remembered all over again. You saw it in the sign at the Peking Express—a cartoon man with a coolie hat, slant eyes, buckteeth, and chopsticks. You saw it in the little boys on the playground, stretching their eyes to slits with their fingers—Chinese—Japanese—look at these—and in the older boys who muttered ching chong ching chong ching as they passed you on the street, just loud enough for you to hear… You kept your head down and thought about school, or space, or the future, and tried to forget about it. And you did, until it happened again.Pages 192-193
Lydia—who hardly opens up to the reader at all during this book—sort of has this scene where Jack asks her what it’s like to be Chinese in America, and the narrator describes this monologue in thought, before Lydia responds out loud with a shorter, simpler version of this. But if this can be considered “Lydia’s thoughts,” then this is the largest glimpse we get of her, and it’s about growing used to the connotations your entire society has of you based off of your physical identity. Moments like this are why it’s important for us to read stories written by all kinds of people, especially people with different perspectives.
Ng incorporates a few themes of facing adversity in this story. As Marilyn and Jame’s histories are revealed to the reader, we see how sexism and racism respectively affect their lives. James has spent his whole life distancing himself from his heritage and wishing he could blend in better; he rejects this major part of his identity because the society in which he lives makes him feel like he should be ashamed, like his very appearance is mocked. (The only thing I like about James and Louisa’s relationship is that James is finally reintroduced to cultural elements of his childhood that he had long forgotten and thought were oddities, and this perhaps allowed him to reclaim some pride in his roots.) This is something James largely faces in silence; like literally everything else in their lives, James and Marilyn do not discuss their racial differences nor does James talk to Marilyn about the prejudice he faces, until the very end when they finally argue—but hey, at least they’re talking.
It’s neat because Ng also sort of illustrates how even a couple that loves each other is complicit in systemized sexism and racism. For example, Marilyn wants to get a job and be independent, but James wants her to be a stay-at-home mom because he makes enough money. Of course James loves her and doesn’t realize his deeply ingrained sexist understanding of the world, but his words are still crucial to Marilyn. And just as Marilyn loves James and loves that he’s different, she’s still complicit in his feeling inferior by the remarks she makes that reveal her subconscious subscription to certain stereotypes about Chinese men—and not realizing what impact that merely alluding to this has on James, either.
[Marilyn says,] “If she were a white girl, they’d keep looking.”
A rock plummets into James’s gut. In all their time together, white has been only the color of paper, of snow, of sugar. Chinese—if it is mentioned at all—is a kind of checkers, a kind of fire drill, a kind of takeout, one James doesn’t care for… Now, when Marilyn says this—If she were a white girl—it proves what James has feared all along. That inside, all along, she’d labeled everything. White and not white. That this thing makes all the difference in the world.Page 202
But Marilyn also suffers because her potential is squashed because the obligation of raising a family falls to her, and because she is constantly reminded that women don’t really “do” the doctor thing, which has always been her dream.
They were all men, Marilyn noticed: Dr. Kenner, Dr. Gordon, Dr. McLenahan, Dr. Stone. What had made her think she could be one of them? It seemed as impossible as turning into a tiger.Page 95
(Out of context, this quote makes me realize how weak some of the writing is.) Because she never became a doctor, she decides to live vicariously through her daughter and control her like a puppet so she can have some semblance of closure or sense of purpose as a modern woman trying to spite her Betty Crocker-loving mother. She doesn’t want her own daughter (because forget Hannah, right?) to succumb to the same fate as she herself did, a fate in which family becomes a burden—a curse—that stands in the way of a woman achieving her dreams.
Perhaps, he thought, everything would have been different; if he’d known how to handle people, how to make them like him, perhaps he’d have fit in at Lloyd, he’d have charmed Marilyn’s mother, they’d have hired him at Harvard. He’d have gotten more out of life.Page 177
So much of this book is regret and lost opportunity. It’s like Marilyn and James are miserable with their lives, so their kids have to be miserable too, and everybody wishes they were somewhere different. Missed chances, mistakes, misguided emotions, misrepresented love.
Another strong theme is the relationship among siblings. Even though I already mentioned that the siblings are crappy to each other, I do recognize that that’s just the sibling relationship. Being kids together is so nuts; I remember I used to get so annoyed with my little brother that I’d want to hurt him, but then when he started crying, I’d baby him and help him feel better. Siblings are really manipulative, but they also love each other in a very primal way. The scene when Nath pushes Lydia into the lake is a fantastic illustration of this angsty, incredible loyalty:
He pushed her in. And then he pulled her out. All her life, Lydia would remember one thing. All his life, Nath would remember another.Page 155
As kids, there’s some inexplicable urge to fight with our siblings. We’re so willing to throw them under the bus until we realize what consequence it will have—and then we do anything to fix it and save them.
So, what was everything that was never told?
Everything I never told you are the things that would have changed our relationship, rocked the dynamics, been more honest. I never told you the things that make me vulnerable, the things you didn’t want to know or hear. The things I never told you I’ll never get the chance to say now, but when you figure them out, please say them for me.
P.S. As soon as I was done with this, I put Little Fires Everywhere on hold at my library. So, no matter what I said, I absolutely do enjoy Ng’s books. It’s clear that Ng loves to write about the churning relationships within a family unit, and I enjoy the way she executes this.
If you’d like to participate in Slanted Spines’s 2020 Book List, the March book is An American Marriage by Tayari Jones! On the last Friday of every month, I’ll post my book review! Check out my main post for the year’s line-up so you can pick which months you want to read along!