A stand alone book review, because this one hit me in my feels.
Celeste Ng knows how to write about complex, family drama. Last year I read and loved Little Fires Everywhere, and this story, her debut, definitely did not disappoint. Everything I Never Told You is an exploration of family dynamics and relationships of the Lee family, an Asian American family living in small town Ohio in the 1970s.
This story explores missed opportunities and the characters attempts to project their life’s desires and goals on their children, in an effort to live through them, but also to prevent the mistakes of their pasts. We see this in the relationship between Marilyn and her mother, Doris. While preparing to leave for college, Doris encourages her daughter to seek out a Harvard man to marry, casting aside and minimizing Marilyn’s dreams of becoming a doctor. Doris was left to manage a home and raise her daughter on her own when Marilyn was only 3, it’s understandable that Doris would want her daughter to have the stability of a husband, a security Doris would never have. Some 30 years later, we see Marilyn projecting, if not forcing, her dream of being a doctor on her daughter, Lydia.
As if the pressure from her mother wasn’t enough, Lydia also faces different, social expectations from her father, James, who had a difficult time making friends and fitting in as a child. We learn James was treated as an outcast as the only Asian student in his class – years later his children will also face similar battles. My mouth literally dropped when James presented Lydia with her Christmas gift, a book titled “How to Win Friends and Influence People: Fundamental Techniques in Handling People, 6 Ways in Making People Like You.” I can’t imagine the embarrassment Lydia must have felt in that moment. My heart also hurts for James, who feels he is responsible for the isolation and loneliness of his children, due to their mixed race and the lack of diversity in their small Ohio town, where is a college professor teaching a course on American history.
“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.”
― Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You
What feels special to me about this book is the ability to relate to every character at different stages of their lives. While I am not yet a parent, I can sense that Doris, Marilyn, and James had good intentions with their expectations and desires for their children. I was not long ago a hard working student myself, every homework assignment and essay under review by my mother with the expectation for near perfection. And who can forget the heartache of isolation in high school, both in social friendships and romantic relationships.
The storytelling was beautiful and poignant, in a subtle and quiet way. The symbolism was light but impactful. A book about parental expectations, societal norms, prejudice, young love, heartache, identity, freedom, and self discovery. Wonderful character development and depth that had me on a roller coaster of emotion, at times hating these characters for their actions, but later empathizing and forgiving them by the conclusion.
Until tomorrow, Meryn