Jun 13, 2015

Book Looks: The Quiet Storm That Brews In 'Everything I Never Told You'

The way Everything I Never Told You unfolds is beautiful.

Strange to say considering the novel is about a family that is coming to grips with the death of their teen-aged daughter, but Celeste Ng writes with such eloquent fluidity, with such shivering and minute intimacy that it reads poetic even when the subject matter is filled with anything but.

In her debut novel, Ng introduces us to the Lee family, a Chinese/Caucasian brood of five who live in what is supposed to be a perfect picture-postcard suburban area in Ohio during the 1970s. While on the outset things appear to be calm and orderly, underneath the family is a ticking time bomb as tension simmers and unspoken words are bound and gagged, egging to come out. When Lydia, the middle child, is found dead, floating in the middle of a lake, all that is suppressed finally comes to the surface.

The tone is set from the first page --- really the first sentence --- as Lydia is confirmed dead, her family unaware. From there we work and get swept up in the ebb and flow of death’s aftermath and the hidden lives and thoughts of the “left behind”, the ones who orbited Lydia --- her siblings, Nathan and Hannah, her parents, James and Marilyn, and her neighborhood friend, Jack. Instead of going for the straight sap trap of a Hallmark Movie, Everything I Never Told You places you into the claustrophobic chamber of a deep character study, with each individual given space to unravel, all of their emotions and mental states compressing and inching on you gradually.

Ng expertly weaves in a mélange of topics --- race, sexism, identity, depression, marital issues, parenting errors and homosexuality --- all of which don’t overcrowd each other, but overlay, and connect. She especially tackles the struggles of a mixed-race family without dancing around the topic or attempting to make it all seem grossly abnormal. As much is made of the issues that crop up for Black/White mixed-race families, it was refreshing to see the Asian/White experience and how Marilyn and James, while loving each other deeply, still hadn’t truly faced their differences nor allowed their children to do so either.

Ng is aware to not paint her characters with one stereotypical gloss, and I appreciated the intricacies in her prose as she not only explains everybody’s backstories with clear scope to the time era, but shows the riffs in their character to make them sympathetic but also genuine.

James and Marilyn may seem unlikable to some, but I understood why they did the things they did. They both share the same problem of dealing with identity. James tries to shed his ethnicity in order to assimilate and be accepted while Marilyn is desperate to shed June Cleaver’s pearls before she suffocates on her mother’s conservative upbringing as she attempts (and ultimately fails) to move and shake into a male-dominated professional world. This need for identity has made them obsessive and fearful that their children will experience their shared plight, and sadly, this fear turned them into ‘helicopter parents’ towards one child, leading to her demise as well as wedged distance between themselves and their other children.

We usually get the story about the parents who neglect or violently abuse their children, but this was a nice change of pace because sometimes “over loving” can also have damaging consequences as well. This made me think about how sometimes parents will move the mountains and the moon for their children, but sometimes they fail to actively see their child, and see what’s the real issue in front of them.

Everything I Never Told You reminded me of another one of my favorite books/movies, Ordinary People, where nothing really happens, but yet so much does. It followed a similar plotline where a family dealing with a loss and how they unravel at their already unstable seams over it. It even possessed an unhappy mother character that is isolated towards her other children, except for the deceased one --- her favorite --- and when the favorite is taken away she is thinking in a loop: “Why did it have to be her? Why couldn’t it have been the others?” Just like Ordinary People, this book tackles the hard facts about the hidden personas within us all as it invites you into a brutal honesty that feels all too real to be fiction.

The only flaw I can give this book is that the ending for it is a tad rushed, and it attempts to wrap everything up so fiercely when the story was a such a nice slow dance. Yet, I guess it’s hard to end a topic like death and healing, because the process of those things is ongoing. There is never a cut-off, or a real ‘final’ solution...it chips away at you less, but it’s still...there.

I can be a hard sell when it comes to recent contemporary literature, but Everything I Never Told You is one of the best to come out of the genre in years.

+ Previously posted on GoodReads

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