Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng, Review by Corinne Donnelly
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng provides an intimate portrait of a Chinese-American family living in the United States during the 1970s. The novel begins with a bang: Lydia, the “golden child” of the Lee family has gone missing. In an attempt to pinpoint what went wrong, Ng’s characters traverse down memory lane, navigating all of the choices that led up to this point in each of their lives. While gorgeously written and carefully crafted, the novel bites off quite a bit more than it can chew in the various themes it attempts to address.
The skillful use of flashbacks provides a fantastic level of insight into each character, particularly Lydia’s parents, James and Marilyn Lee. James’ and Marilyn’s insecurities play an important role in how they treat their three children. Everyone can find ways to relate to their flawed upbringing and how they struggle to be the parents they wished their parents could have been. The flashbacks also mirror how we all tend to analyze past events in order to make sense of pivotal moments in our lives; it’s just human nature.
Ng utilizes shifting perspectives which alternate back and forth from chapter to chapter, as well as within chapters. Coupled with the non-chronological time-line, these narrative choices often feel a tad excessive, but they are highly effective at creating an extremely personal and cathartic experience. The opportunity to delve into the minds and emotions of a variety of characters also emphasizes how a lack of honest communication can lead to tragedy.
The idea of “the other” is the overarching theme of the novel, and it heavily permeates the narrative. James, a child born of Chinese immigrants, struggles to portray himself as an all-American gentleman in order to fit in. Likewise, as an aspiring female doctor, Marilyn must constantly combat the housewife stereotype so often associated with the women of her era. When the narrative jumps back to present day, Ng supplements the story with more thematic elements, such as the pains of growing up, suicide, rebellion, secrets, lies, and so on. At this point, there is so much to take in that the plot becomes too overwhelming and burdensome. Ultimately, I find that most narratives are more effective if they focus on one or two distinct themes, as opposed to throwing many together in an attempt to add more to the story.
Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You attempts to say a bit too much for such a short novel. While the characters possess detailed back stories that are also exceedingly relatable, Ng’s strict attention to the deeper meaning of events detracts from the reading experience. The ending of the novel also felt a bit too esoteric to be truly satisfying, although I can understand why Ng would want to leave it open-ended. If you’re fond of deep analyses of the intricate workings of the family unit, you will want to give this novel a read, as it teaches many valuable lessons, but if you’re more interested in the mystery of Lydia’s disappearance, you may leave disappointed.