Thursday, August 20, 2015

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Title: Everything I Never Told You
Author: Celeste Ng
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication date: June 16, 2014
Rating: ★★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet… So begins this debut novel about a mixed-race family living in 1970s Ohio and the tragedy that will either be their undoing or their salvation. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee; their middle daughter, a girl who inherited her mother’s bright blue eyes and her father’s jet-black hair. Her parents are determined that Lydia will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue – in Marilyn’s case that her daughter become a doctor rather than a homemaker, in James’s case that Lydia be popular at school, a girl with a busy social life and the center of every party.

When Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together tumbles into chaos, forcing them to confront the long-kept secrets that have been slowly pulling them apart.

Holy shit. No words. One of the best ever.

I'm just going to make a list of things I love about this book, and maybe when I have my life together I'll post a fully formed review:

The writing is spot-on. It's heavy, it flows, it's sharp and clever where it needs to be ("acerbic" is the best way to describe it), it's wistful and regretful where it makes sense. (This must have gone through fifty thousand rounds of edits because I swear to God, it's flawless.) I borrowed this book from the library, and as soon as I finished it, I knew I had to have my own copy. There were pages and pages and moments upon moments that I wanted to underline and highlight and brand into my memory because they were powerful, or they represented the universal human experience, or they just felt like a claw poking into my skin and it was painful but there was a beauty in it, too.

The representation of the Asian (Chinese, specifically) experience in the 1970s. A lot of this is accurate even now, and definitely when I was growing up in the 90s and 2000s: not wanting to bring home-cooked meals to school for lunch because the other kids thought my food smelled weird or just because it was different; always cataloguing one's "otherness"; wondering why eyeshadow didn't look the same way on my eyes as it did on all my friends'... I didn't have to deal with all the same struggles that James went through because (1) I was fortunate enough to grow up, at least partially, in a Chinese community, so there was at least one place where my "Asian-ness" was a normal thing, but also (2) I was a really Americanized kid. Did I have to sometimes choose between being American and being Chinese? Sure. I still do. But it was easier for me to negotiate that world on my own – my parents weren't nearly as involved in that part of my life as Lydia's are, because my parents had their own supportive community to fall back on, and there was less of this pressure to conform. Celeste Ng does an incredible job exploring the casual racism of Western society (e.g. her use of the word "Oriental"), as well as James' internalized racism (e.g. James' own use of the word "Oriental"). I'm just going to throw in a little dig here because that's the kind of person I am: Rainbow Rowell needs to read this book because this is what being Asian in America really looked (and looks) like.

So many diverse characters. Divorced women; interracial relationships (more than one!); unfaithful relationships; boys struggling with their sexuality; intelligent, ambitious boys; smothered children; children who get lost in the shuffle; second generation Asians who are less concerned with assimilation but still deal with micro aggressions on a daily basis (hey y'all FYI this is still a problem today). I loved the huge diversity of backgrounds and lived experiences that were represented in this book, and every character in this story is multi-dimensional and has a history, their own fears and desires and hopes and dreams and experiences that make them who they are today.

The beautiful, complex themes in this story. I touched on this a little bit above, but Celeste Ng explores so many universal human experiences in Everything I Never Told You: the loss of your future due to unforeseen events; all the possibilities you have as a child; the very human desire to start over; the repercussions of living in the shadow of your parents – whether in rebellion or dutiful obedience; the repercussions of living in the shadow of your siblings; the complexity of family; the complexity of identity; the power of choice – to stay, to go, to love, to leave behind. All of the characters are tangled up with each other – the result of life, sloppy and messy as it is – and it's a constant reminder that people are fragile and breakable, that our actions can hurt other people, that our words (or the secrets we keep) can weigh people down – but they can also set people free.

I loved this book so much... so much, in fact, that even as I meant to jot down a quick list of what made this book so great, it still ended up as a complete review. What a wonderful debut from Celeste Ng. (I mean, seriously, though? This is a debut novel. What.)

1 comment:

  1. I love the idea of the diversity. I am going to give this one a try again. As I said I stopped at 30%, hoping to not have to start from the beginning again but I may.