“You never got what you wanted; you just learned to get by without it.”
If I could describe Everything I Never Told You in one sentence, it would be this: a heartbreaking book about a fractured family told in a beautiful way. Luckily, I have more than one sentence to write this review, but frankly, I don’t think anything I write could truly do it justice.
This book takes place in the suburbs of Ohio during the 1970’s. The Lee’s are a mixed-race family of four who have a seemingly perfect life. However, the story starts with the body of Lydia Lee, the oldest daughter, being found in the local lake. In her wake, Lydia’s mother, father, brother, and sister are all left to deal with their grief and figure out where they stand as a family and as individuals without her. We follow multiple timelines, like when James Lee (the father) and Marilyn (the mother) first met, their romance and struggles as an inter-racial couple in the 60’s/70’s, the lives of their kids growing up, and more.
Before getting into the nuances of this book and my specific thoughts, I want to dedicate a section of this review to just credit Celeste Ng on her writing. A story like Everything I Never Told you is so detailed in the best ways possible, and because of that so hard to write. There are so many characters and I was a bit hesitant because, really, how could we get to know each member of this family in a meaningful way in just 300 pages? But wow, she did it. I feel like it is very difficult to make character-focused books into something more, but Ng did a fabulous job of getting everything just right.
Also, I want to emphasize as much as I can that this is not a thriller or murder mystery or anything like that! So many of the negative reviews I have seen for this book start off with “Oh, I was expecting something more fast paced…” or “I thought this would be an exciting mystery.” If that’s what you’re looking for, then this is not the book for you. This is a real, raw, family drama that deals with hard topics. The characters in this book can be quite unlikeable, but that’s the point!!
“How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers.”
So, clearly, I have nothing but good things to say about Everything I Never Told You. I want to start off by talking a little more about the characters since this was a very character-driven story. I do know people who have done full character portraits and analysis for this book which I won’t even attempt 🙈 That being said, I have much to say about them and their relationships with one another. So! Here we go:
Lydia’s relationship with her parents was definitely something the author focused on a lot, and it was so complicated and yet so straightforward. To put it simply: they both had different wants from her. Marilyn grew up wanting to stand out and do something bigger. However, as a white, middle-class girl, she was expected to get a husband, start a family, and then take care of that family. What she really dreamed of, though, was to become a doctor. Marilyn’s mother not only disapproved of her choice in career, but she also disapproved of Marilyn’s romantic life. James grew up as the only son of two Chinese immigrants. All he ever wanted was to blend in, however, he went through school without any friends and feeling embarrassed more than anything else.
Neither Marilyn nor James ended up achieving what they wanted. Then, came Lydia. Their daughter. She was born with blue eyes, which pleased James. As parents, all they wanted was for their kids to have what they never did. He dreamed of his kids having a lot of friends and fitting in, something he never got. Marilyn, on the other hand, projected her dreams of becoming a doctor onto Lydia. She would spend hours reading science books with her daughter and doing projects/experiments together. I won’t go into the reasons why (because spoilers), but Lydia wanted nothing more than to make her parent’s happy. So she tried to be the perfect daughter for them.
“Lydia, five years old, standing on tiptoe to watch vinegar and baking soda foam in the sink. Lydia tugging a heavy book from the shelf, saying, “Show me again, show me another.” Lydia, touching the stethoscope, ever so gently, to her mother’s heart. Tears blur Marilyn’s sight. It had not been science that Lydia had loved”
I thought this was really interesting because it’s so real. James and Marilyn are so easy to dislike in this book (for many reasons, but this being one of them), however, it is realistic. While the two understandably want what’s best for their kids, they don’t really think about the dreams of their children. More specifically, Lydia. James and Marilyn didn’t realize or take this into account until after the loss of Lydia, but it was so heartbreaking as a reader to read about the parents realizing and re-evaluating their relationship with their daughter to see what went wrong. Nath and Hannah, the couple’s other two children and Lydia’s siblings, were often overlooked by their parents.
Actually, my main critique for this book was just that. I wish Ng would’ve spent more time introducing us to Nath and Hannah because we got to see glimpses of their lives but nothing really substantial. Hannah, especially, was someone I felt bad for because she was constantly overlooked by her whole family. It might have been interesting to see her thoughts more 🤷🏽♀️
The book does an amazing job of weaving their lives and stories together to create a bigger picture of their life. This review is already getting too long, but I would highly implore you all to give this one a read if you haven’t already. I would even go so far as to say it was better than Little Fires Everywhere, Ng’s other book. It is definitely a new favorite of mine and genuinely made my heart ache, especially the end.
Rating: 4.5 stars
Have you read Everything I Never Told You? Are you interested in trying it?