Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This is one dark book. Of course, when you read middle grade books 95 percent of the time, it doesn't take much to shock me. This well-told tale was a dig through the dredges of a dysfunctional family in the 1970's when interracial marriages where rare and women career aspirations were mainly to be homemakers. The writer takes a complex topic that could easily have been stereotyped and turns it into a mystery with characters and their motivations turning reader expectations upside down. What an intense read.

Sixteen-year-old Lydia is found dead (don't worry, you know this from the first sentence) and her family deals with her death in different ways. Through flashbacks and multiple points-of-view, the parents and surviving sister and brother, reveal their motivations and the scars inflicted on each of them as a result of feeling like outsiders in a world that doesn't accept biracial marriages. What the author does so well is make the characters' revelations unfold like a mystery leading the reader to wonder if Lydia was murdered, committed suicide, or had an accident.

James is Chinese-American and grew up in a town where he was the only Chinese boy in school. His blond wife, Marilyn, wanted to be a doctor before meeting James at Harvard University where she was a student and he was a graduate teacher. They are drawn to each other because they never felt like they fit in with mainstream society. James feels sidelined because of his ethnicity while Marilyn feels isolated because of her gender. When Marilyn finds out she is pregnant, she quits school to become a housewife.

The author does a good job showing a mother killing her daughter by placing impossible expectations on her. Marilyn's complex relationship with her daughter and extending her squashed dreams onto her is tragic. James wanting Lydia to fit in so desperately that he buys books for her on how to make friends and then she, in turn, pretends to talk on the phone with friends is poignant in showing just how off-kilter the relationships are in this family.

Whether an Asian-American man and white woman should get married is the overarching theme, but the idea of feeling marginalized in society is explored even more. The entire family does not feel like they fit in with the culture and the result is isolation, loneliness, and feeling trapped. The end has an interesting twist that makes a character's motives unclear. Either way, all of the characters are not grounded in reality and their lives have become impossible. No one in this family really talks to each other, until the very end, where some understandings are made that suggests the family can move forward. They'll limp along, no doubt, but at least they will start moving forward.

4 Smileys


  1. I am so tired of depressing, even if they are well written, middle to high school stories; so are my students!

  2. Ha! That is one thing I like about middle grade. They don't lean so much toward depressing.

  3. Celeste Ng is a gifted writer. Her words paint pictures of real people suffering from interesting problems that many readers will relate to. I was drawn into the lives of the five members of this family as if they were my own relatives. The best part of the book is the excellent writing. The word pictures are stunning and revealing of the character of the people whose lives unfold in this wonderful book. Great read anytime.

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  4. Yes, she is a really good writer. I admire writers that write so descriptively and figuratively. She develops characters well with good plot and pacing.