Recommendation Tuesday: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Recommendation Tuesday started as a joke and is now an official thing. Basically, this is my way of making Tuesday a little more awesome. If you've got a book to recommend on this or any Tuesday, tweet me at @FullShelves and I'll help spread the word.
It's not often I find a work on literary fiction that has a story as compelling as its prose--hence, I don't recommend it very often. Sparkling, thoughtful writing is wonderful, but it feels awfully vapid when the story falters. Or it's filled with dull Middle Aged Man Angst.
Discovering Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You was an unexpected surprise, as result. While imperfect (as all novels are), it hits so many notes that make worth checking out, even if you normally avoid literary fiction. It's a historical novel, though the 1970s time period is one of the book's less-developed aspects, but more than anything it's a story of family and marriage.
Everything I Never Told opens with a revelation: 16-year old Lydia is dead, but her family doesn't know that yet. The narrative then shifts in time to Lydia's parents' meeting, the challenges of being an interracial couple (James is Chinese-American, Marilyn is white), their move to small town Ohio and the moments that define their marriage and family. As the story shifts among points of view and timelines, the reader slowly begins to understand what exactly brought this family to their current state in the aftermath of favorite child Lydia's disappearance and death. Wrapped up in this story is also a quiet mystery. How did Lydia die? Who was involved? What did anyone really know about her life and dreams?
I really enjoy non-linear narratives when they're executed well--the rambling path to get to the end point is satisfying on an intellectual level that's hard to explain. I think it's because in many ways, this storytelling device is rather reflective of life itself--even though we're headed in a straight line, we don't really understand everything around us, and nothing is really as it seems. Everything I Never Told You does this extremely well.
Thematically, Ng's book's greatest strength is examining the impact of parental expectations and the way parents can conflate their hopes for themselves with their children's dreams. Marilyn deeply regrets not becoming a doctor or scientist, so she moves mountains to support Lydia's interest in science--regardless of whether or not Lydia has an interest in or aptitude for this field. James desperately wants his daughter to fit in and be the popular kid he never was and desperately wished to be. And while neither of those aspirations are harmful on their surface--they're not Lydia's own and that's a hard thing to live with as a young person. The author does a brilliant job of exploring the nuances of living that experience that's quite impressive.
My biggest niggle with Everything I Never Told You is that at times plot points exist to seemingly make the novel more in alignment with literary fiction norms. For example, there's a relatively minor infidelity storyline that adds little to the narrative, since it's already ripe with conflict and family strife due to Lydia's death. It's overly-symbolic of another relationship in the novel, and felt a bit too obvious for my taste. Laura and I were discussing this novel recently and she felt the same way, that this plot point stuck out in an awkward and unnecessary manner.
I can say the same with the resolution to the mystery of Lydia's death--I wished that it had been explored more and that some of the heavy-handed symbolism involved in the climax had been toned down.
Regardless of those minor criticisms, Everything I Never Told You is one to snag if you're looking for a meaty read packed into a slim(ish) volume. There's a lot to untangle in this complex, nuanced family story and it would be a great choice for a book club.
Note: Through the end of this month, you can get a free edition of the audiobook of Everything I Never Told You. You have to join this Goodreads group and have an Audible login. If you're not an Audible member, you can help support CEFS by joining using this link, rather than the normal one--it's always appreciated.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of this novel from Penguin. However, my Kindle broke and my e-galley expired. I downloaded my copy via my own purchased Audible subscription.