Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is Amazon Editors’ #1 Pick for Best Book of 2014. It is the story of a Chinese-American family living in a small town in Ohio in the 1970’s and how the death of the oldest daughter, 16-year old Lydia, affects each member of her family.
From the very first sentence, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” the book grabs you and doesn’t let you go. I read the book in two days, but I would have read it in one sitting if life would not have gotten in the way.
The book works on many levels. There is the mystery of how Lydia died (suicide or murder), questions of race and “fitting in,” as well as family dynamics and how the weight of parents’ psycho-emotional baggage usually gets loaded unto the shoulders of the children. Most of all, as the book title implies, it is a story about communication, or rather the lack of it, that is so prevalent in families regardless of how loving or filled with good intentions they might be.
Do we really know those who are closest to us, our parents, our spouses, our children? We like to think that we do. The poet John Donne famously said No Man Is An Island, but he was wrong. Everyone is an island, sometimes hard to reach, even by one’s self.
It is possible that this book touched me because I have a 14-year old. My oldest son is kind and sensitive and sometimes exasperating as 14-year old boys can be, yet he still needs my hugs and kisses. But sometimes I feel that we’re far apart, that I don’t really know him. I wonder if I’m being a good mother. Am I giving him enough space to become his own person, or too much? Am I repeating the same mistakes that my parents made with me? What have I done that has already scarred him for life? What can I do, if anything, to counter it? Supposedly, this is the normal process of living with a teenager. Everyone said that it would be hard, but no one warned me that it would be made up of so many questions, guilt, and hope.
But the fact that the book spoke to me because of my life’s circumstances is not the only, nor the most important, reason why I liked it. It is Celeste Ng’s writing that makes this book a must-read. It is simply astonishing that this is her first book. Her characters are well-defined, her writing is so precise that not a single word feels out of place, her observations are spot-on even when they’re painful.
I hesitated a lot to read this book. Who wants to read about the death of a 16-year old girl? But I’m so glad that I did. I keep thinking about it, not only because it’s a multi-layered good read but also because the book serves as a reminder of potential pitfalls to avoid as a parent. Most of all it is an intelligent, compassionate, and excellently written study on family.
I tell you, Everything I Never Told You, is a worthy read.