Layout Assistant reviews Celeste Ng’s fiction novel Everything I Never Told You

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By Danielle Rice || Layout Assistant

In the debut novel and New York Times bestseller, Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng creates a heart-wrenching, yet beautiful depiction of a Chinese-American family in a small suburban town in the 1970’s, and the events that lead up to and follow the death of their seemingly perfect middle child, Lydia. The novel centers around the theme of how little, unsaid things can build-up and eventually lead to devastating effects.

In order to reveal how Lydia’s body ended up in the local lake, the book examines relationships in families, not only between the main family – the parents, Marilyn and James, Lydia, the older son, Nath, and younger daughter, Hannah – but also between Marilyn and her parents, and James and his. These relationships cause Marilyn and James to have certain motivations in life and expectations for who they want their children to become. The story shows how feelings, expressed or not, can affect people for generations.

The mystery of Lydia’s death drives the plot forward as the family speculates about what happened to her, meanwhile discovering that they didn’t know her as well as they thought they did. Lydia’s story is slowly revealed as the novel switches between the time after her death and back to her childhood, and even before she was born. Each family member deals with their grief in his or her own way, showing the extreme pain of losing a child and how a family struggles, but eventually learns to mend itself after such a loss.

As Lydia grows up, both parents try to place their unfulfilled dreams onto her, to make her the person they couldn’t be. The complexity of children’s relationships with their parents is shown realistically, and Ng looks at why parents and children might not share everything and what can be misunderstood if they don’t always say what they feel.

Each child in the family deals with their own separate issues. Lydia, the favorite child, gains all of the attention, but eventually resents this spotlight because she can’t live up to her parents’ expectations. Nath, the oldest son, struggles to get his parents to notice his achievements, while the youngest, Hannah, is often forgotten and observes the family, wishing she could solve their problems from afar. Ng captures sibling relationships, how siblings – although at times rival for attention – can also be the ones who understand each other the most.

Ng has a simple and straightforward writing style that includes beautiful imagery. She captures little details or facial expressions perfectly in order to give a full picture of this family and every relationship within it. Tiny movements, glances, or words exchanged between family members can signify so much. In this story, every little action can have a ripple of effects or a few words spoken by a character can change the course of a life. 

The mystery of figuring out what happened to Lydia along with the beautiful writing style makes for a novel that you won’t be able to put down. The story is so realistic, all readers can find something in it that they and their families can relate to and it is so moving that it will leave you in tears, but having learned and experienced so much.

First-year Danielle Rice is a Layout Assistant. Her email is drice1@fandm.edu

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