Review of Everything I Never Told You. Celeste Ng. New York: Penguin, 2015 (297 pages)

The first sentence of this novel is reminiscent of a murder mystery: “Lydia is dead.” However, the second sentence hints that the plot will revolve around something other than whodunit: “But they didn’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.” They, in this case, refer to Lydia’s family. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is at its heart a family story, exploring how grief drills a hole inside a family, revealing its frayed edges.

Each member of Lydia’s family deals with her loss in a way that reveals his or her character. Her mother, Marilyn, paces Lydia’s room and pours over everything looking for clues. Her father, James, deals with the police and every day goes to a summer class that has been cancelled. Older brother Nath looks for someone to blame, especially the neighbor that 16-year-old Lydia might have been dating. Only little sister Hannah watches and sees what happens, but no one pays any attention to her.

Ng creates tension in the family by contrasting what people say with what they’re thinking: “I’m taking your mother and sister home. When you’ve cooled off, you can walk,” James tells Nath when he lashes out at the police during the funeral. “Deep inside, he wants more than anything to calm Nath, to put a comfortable and weighty hand on his shoulder, to fold him into his arms, on this day of all days.” James fails to do the right thing, in the same way that any of us fail to find the right words or fail to reach out when under the power of grief.

Another strength of this novel is the way that it re-creates what it was like to be Asian-American in the Midwest during the 1970s. James is a Chinese-American and his wife, Marilyn, is of some un-defined white heritage, and their three children are the only children of color in the small town. Each of them experience this loneliness in a different way, and not coincidentally hangs his or her future on Lydia, the family member that looks the most like a mainstream white person. When Marilyn accuses James of “kow-towing” to the police, the real ethnic slur behind this expression is thrown into relief, and the unknowing racism behind her words nearly destroys their relationship.

As the title suggests, Everything I Never Told You brings forward family secrets as the author explores the private world of all five family members as well as the neighbor boy who shared their world. Their longing for love and recognition goes unmet not only between family members but also in a society the repels anyone who is different. Marilyn’s unmet need for recognition in a career causes her to push Lydia to succeed academically. When her daughter disappears, she cannot imagine suicide as a possibility, because this would dismantle her firm view that Lydia wanted to be a doctor.

While tragedy sometimes can bring a family together, this story shows how grief also can divide people who love each other. Is grief always something you do alone? This “wisdom” is often contained in quotes about the grief process, as if it can only be a lonely road to recovery. Perhaps what Ng has showed us is that Grief has this power: to divide us into our lone worlds of anguish. Just as everyone experiences emotion in their own way, everyone will succumb to the stages of grief in their own way in their own time.

The emotion of grief may not be shared, but a family still shares an experience, and this Ng brings forward in the subtle emotional landscape she has created. “On the stairs, Hannah holds her breath. She is afraid to move anything, even a fingertip. Maybe if she stays perfectly still, everything will be all right.”

While this family’s journey through an unthinkable landscape at times seems agonizing, I suspect that the growth some of the characters experience toward the end of the book happens more quickly than would be possible in real life. Still, we need to believe that grief can have this transformative effect: we will emerge, scarred, but with some new vision of the world.

2 replies
  1. Christina Baldwin
    Christina Baldwin says:

    Thanks for this thoughtful exploration of another author’s work. One of the questions hanging for me is “Is grief something we always do alone?” As you mention your own losses in the past 5 years, I am sure you have put experience and thought into the grief process. Looking forward to hearing more about your insights.

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