The Inkwell is a series of book reviews, or just rambling thoughts on specific books. For more, amble here.
Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.
A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.
“What made something precious? Losing it and finding it.”
― Celeste Ng,
Intricate, intimate, and incredible. This stunning family portrait is rendered so exquisitely that at times I felt as if I were gasping for air. The lake of Ng’s words engulfed me so wholly, I could almost feel the silt and water in my lungs.
The family’s backstory unfolds with manifold strings. In the 1960s, Marilyn, an aspiring doctor raised by a homemaker mother, meets James Lee, a graduate teaching assistant. Marilyn is white. James is Chinese American. In their hearts, they have very different longings. They fall in love. And like the set up of a row of dominoes, they have three children: Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah. How does it happen, that by May of 1977, the Lees’ favored middle child is found drowned at the bottom of a lake?
While reading this novel, I was reminded powerfully of how writing is a craft. Of course that’s something I know, but Ng’s craftsmanship is so sublime and taut that I felt that fact over and and over again. As she weaves in and out of the consciousness of each member of the Lee family, Ng remains deftly dynamic.
One important note of review: I expected the ending, the core truth of what happened to Lydia, to be ambiguous. That would have been the easy way out. But it was not. It was stark and bare. You will not expect it, but it will feel more true than anything you might have imagined from the first page, the first sentence that does not hide: Lydia is dead.
This book starts with a dead teenage girl and a mystery, but it is not a thriller. It doesn’t have loud-gasp plot twists, but it is breathtaking in a slow and quiet way.
Everything I Never Told You is about how we orbit in and out of each others’ gravitational fields in ellipses rather than perfect circles—sometimes closer, sometimes farther. About relationships, but also about the distance between. It’s about the weight of expectation. It’s about fitting in and standing out. It’s about marginalization. It’s about grief. My goodness, I’m still feeling the ache of the prose.