I rarely get personal book recommendations. I’m usually the one recommending the books, or being asked for recommendations. So when my cousin reached out to recommend Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, I immediately picked up a copy. I read the first chapter. And then I put it down. For two months. (Nothing to do with the book, I just didn’t have the energy to read about the family of a young girl who mysteriously drowned after my grandmother died. And then I had to finish my thesis.) But then I noticed it was free on Audible (with Amazon Prime), so I decided to listen to the audiobook. And it completely blew me away.
(From Goodreads) “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, drama, 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.
I’m not sure what I was expecting from Everything I Never Told You. But what I got was much better. I loved that it ended up being primarily about Lydia’s family. The sections about her parents – particularly when they were younger – were some of my favorites. Marilyn is a young woman aspiring to be a doctor when she meets James Lee – her professor – and falls in love. As a biracial couple, and then family, they face discrimination from their classmates and neighbors. The death of their second child sends the family into a tailspin as each family member tries to cope with tragedy in their own way. It was incredibly interesting to see what the family has to deal with. (The author mentions that James and Marilyn’s interracial marriage in Boston – which has always been a bit more liberal – coincided with the controversial marriage of Richard and Mildred Loving in the South.) Race plays an important role in this story, in how each member of the family is treated before and after Lydia’s death, and how Lydia’s murder is handled by both the police and the press. For me, that made this story so much more important, and maybe even more tragic.
I particularly liked that, although this story is kind of a mystery – we don’t know exactly how Lydia died until the very end – it wasn’t over-the-top or sensationalized. It felt very real, and was more about how Lydia’s death affects her family than it was about how she died. I also liked the flashbacks, and how problems the family had faced for nearly two decades began to surface in the wake of Lydia’s death. Marilyn, James, and their two surviving children – Nath and Hannah – each find themselves trying to deal with Lydia’s death, trying to figure out what happened, and what they could have done to prevent it. And while they all react in completely different ways, I could empathize with them all. I understood Nath’s suspicion, James’s need to escape, Hannah’s struggle to find her new place in the family and maybe get some of the love that had been reserved for Lydia, and Marilyn’s burning desire for answers. I loved every one of the characters, and thought the story was told perfectly.
In many ways, Everything I Never Told You is a coming of age story. It’s a family tragedy. A mystery. A story about race. And a look at the sacrifices we make for the ones we love, and the toll they can take. And it is absolutely beautiful.
In case you hadn’t already guessed, this was definitely a five-star book for me. I loved it! And I highly recommend it! It was a short read, but one that will stay with me for a very long time.
You can order your copy of Everything I Never Told You here.
I also highly recommend the audiobook if that’s something you’re interested in. To get it free, use this link to sign up for a free trial of Audible and choose Everything I Never Told You as one of your two free books (which you get to keep even if you cancel).
If you’ve read this book, let me know what you thought of it in the comments!