Celeste Ng: Everything I Never Told You

(And Stuff We’re Not Telling Either)

Celeste NgCertainly one of the more stunning and critically-acclaimed debut novels of 2014, Everything I Never Told You is a bit of a literary mystery, piecing together the interior lives of the members of a Chinese-American family living in Ohio in the 1970s. With the death of the eldest daughter (Lydia), the parents (James and Marilyn Lee)—especially—are forced by their grief to unearth their own hopes and aspirations, their own losses and sorrows. The New York Times loved this book, as did many, many others.

Jennifer: Let me start off by giving you my very favorite line, which also may summarize the thematic thrust of this book:

“It has been so long since he thought of his wife as a creature of want.”

With the death, the private wants are exposed.

Did you love it too, Lara?

Lara: I did love it. I absolutely loved it. Ng opened really strongly with:

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know it yet.”

It grabbed me from the beginning, and I wanted to understand why. I actually wanted to understand everything about this girl Lydia that they found dead before her 16th birthday.

I am going to disagree with you, though. I think the thematic thrust of the book is here:

“Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything her father had wanted to blend in.”

That explains everything. The who, what, when, where, and why of this really well-written book.

Jennifer: Okay, so I’ll make my confession here. Lara, I liked it. I liked it a lot; I didn’t love it. Despite the mystery being largely about the interiority of characters, I felt rather distant from them—not close enough. I could tell you their private woes. The quote you mentioned above does, in fact, say it all. I wanted more, however. I wanted to get closer to them. I felt like I was skimming the surface of what it means to be a Chinese man married to a blonde woman with blue eyes in the 1970s. The scenario—and the whole story, really—is well-done, and fabulous. I wanted more intimacy with these characters, more complexity.

Lara: “The interiority of the characters?” You know you sound like a jackass, right?

Jennifer: The inner lives of the characters?

Lara: Better… but, I am going to disagree with you again. Marilyn (mom) grew up in a time when women went to college to major in finding a husband. She wanted no part of that, and was set on becoming a doctor and forged through male-dominated science classes, completely bucking convention. But she meets James (dad), a Chinese-American man teaching “The Cowboy and American Culture,” and she falls in love. Two children (and no degree) later, she leaves her family to finish her degree, only to find out she’s pregnant again. It’s then she feels her only chance is to push her eldest daughter Lydia to follow in her footsteps. Marilyn’s pain and frustration over her own failures become channeled into creating this super child. The tension is palpable.

Jennifer: Sounds good. Needs more depth. I do love the Chinese guy doing cowboy stuff, though. There’s a lot of unexplored territory here, and I craved its exploration. I wanted to know more about this marriage. You know, this isn’t easy to bring up—but I think it’s true. It’s more culturally acceptable for a white guy to be with an Asian woman (they’re still saying “Oriental” in the 1970s) than it is for an Asian guy to be with a white woman. What would they each be thinking? How did they overcome those cultural biases? This sounds so dumb, but I wanted more Chinese stuff.

Lara: They didn’t overcome it! They had no friends and didn’t do anything socially. They attempted to live through their two oldest children. James kept wanting Lydia to fit in and make friends, and Marilyn wanted her to constantly succeed—relationships weren’t important. And, yet, to James they were. This is how they disconnected and lost sight of what was happening to their daughter and their relationship.

Jennifer: These seem like stereotypical responses to culture-clash.

Here’s an interesting quote:

“In all their time together, white has been only the color of paper, of snow, of sugar. Chinese—if it is mentioned at all—is a kind of checkers, a kind of fire drill, a kind of takeout, one James doesn’t care for.”


I want to hear about him not liking Chinese food.

By the way, Chinese fire drill? What’s that?

Lara: It’s a racist term that denotes something has gone haywire and refers to the Chinese people in an extremely negative way.

Why do you want to hear about him not liking Chinese food? He was born in America and grew up in Ohio. Maybe his family didn’t cook at home much. Maybe he didn’t have access to good Chinese food. Is that really a big deal? I think what’s more important are his feelings about being different and isolated, which are evidenced in how much he wants Lydia to fit in and how much he stays on the sidelines of life.

Jennifer: I hear you. I don’t want to get sidetracked by the food thing. The food isn’t the point. The point is that feeling different and isolated is common; I wanted to hear more intimately about his unique experience. But, at any rate, I do want to be clear about this: I liked more about this book than I disliked.

But still… I’m also not sure that I found this very redemptive. This book felt pretty hopeless to me.

Lara: It mostly is. I think Ng has written a tragedy that might maybe be saved with the death of Lydia. Marilyn and James were on a path of marital destruction. Lydia’s is the almost-breaking point. I want to think their youngest daughter, Hannah, can be part of their reconnection. Hannah has been virtually ignored and Lydia’s death forces her to be noticed.

While I don’t want the success of their marriage hinging on Hannah, the reality is that Hannah may be their only hope. I think Ng did a great job writing about a family in crisis and the possibility of improvement, even after something as devastating as losing a child.

Jennifer: I agree with you. I’ll try to give some positive stuff. The book is compelling, engaging, and I read it rather voraciously—big chunks, quickly. Ng is good at pacing. If I were to compare it to anything I’ve read recently, I might compare it to The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. Like that one, this is a book that pushes you forward, and I think it centers around layers of secrets, albeit secrets people don’t consciously know they possess.

Lara: I knew you would agree with me. You ultimately always do. But we do disagree on one thing that we can’t talk about—and that is Lydia’s death. The motive and how it happened. It’s unlike anything I have read before and I remember audibly gasping. Ng made me gasp. I have only done that two other times when reading—and it wasn’t because of a character’s death—just something utterly shocking.

Jennifer: Yes, we do disagree on the end, but it’s a total spoiler—so you can write us, and ask about it. But only if you’ve already read it.

Lara: So fellow Snotties, you will have to read Everything I Never Told You to see for yourselves. There’s so much about the book we just can’t tell you. Happy reading and chime in with your thoughts—but no spoilers!

Next Up!

We are filling up 2015 with a lot of the best of 2014 and March is no different. Come back and check out our thoughts on Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See.


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Want to read more from Jennifer? Check her out at www.jenniferspiegel.com 

Want to see what Lara is up to? Go to www.onelitchick.com