Everything I Never Told You
By Celeste Ng
There’s a scene about a third of the way into Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You that just about sums up, for me, the experience of reading it. The family members around whom the narrative revolves are still reeling from the death of the middle daughter, Lydia—I’m not giving anything away here; you find out about Lydia’s death in literally the first sentence of the book—and two police officers have arrived at their home to ask a few more questions. Marilyn Lee, the mother, begins shouting at the police, becoming angry and accusatory. James Lee, her husband, tries to calm her down and apologizes to the officers.
Now, this is a dynamic in family dramas that is familiar almost to the point of cliche—the hysterical mother, the conciliatory father—but reading it in this book was electrifying to me because of one detail that colors every interaction in the story, and which made it all so perfectly tangible for me: James is an Asian-American man, Marilyn is a white woman.
Suddenly the whole thing takes on a whole new dimension. Here’s a man who has spent his entire life being ridiculed and excluded, who wants so desperately to fit in and be “normal” that he’s dedicated his life to teaching college students about cowboy imagery. And here’s a woman who, dreaming of being a doctor in her youth, has spent years sublimating her rage at the condescension of men. I wondered as I read this, would a mainstream audience—and by that I meant a white audience—understand this? Is this something that is only obvious to someone like me?
After the officers leave, though, Marilyn accuses James of kowtowing and all of the subtext becomes text. No one is going to miss that. At least, I hope not.
And so it goes for the book as a whole, as well. In so many ways it is a familiar story. Literary fiction on the whole is thick with themes of family tragedy, of longing, of failed communication, and in that way Everything I Never Told You is perfectly representative of the genre. But by putting that story in the context of interracial marriage, and particularly with this racial mix, it becomes something new, something I can’t recall ever seeing before.
I almost feel a little guilty at how thrilling it was for me to read this book. Almost. But it’s not as though I haven’t also gushed over books where none of the characters looked like me. I recognize bits of myself all the time in other stories, but here it felt like a little whisper, the author saying, “I know you. That thing you felt—I felt it, too.” It’s not something I’m used to. Not this thing.
And there was so much I felt as I read this book. The intimacy of the narrative, the way each member of the Lee family is shaped by each other, by their histories, and by the way the rest of the world treats them, it all had me desperately pulling for them, which made each missed opportunity all the more heartbreaking. And if I saw echoes of myself in James Lee’s longing for inclusion, and then in each of his children’s lives as well, how much more infuriating did that make it when they were small to each other, when they hurt each other, when they were self-absorbed or oblivious? How much did it sting to reckon with the ways I must have failed to be the man I ought to be for my own family, good intentions or not?
It’s only February yet, but if Everything I Never Told You is not my favorite book this year, it will have wound up being an amazing year for me as a reader, because topping this experience is going to take some doing.
Started: 2/18/2016 | Finished: 2/25/2016