Everything I Never Told You Review - The Danger of Family Secrets
by Celeste NG
Published in 2014
I was sent this book from one of my close friends from high school and immediately knew I had to read it. Based on the summary, I assumed this would be a psychological suspense/ thriller similar to The Silent Wife or Girl On The Train, however Everything I Never Told You turned out to be a completely unique kind of book that combined some of the thriller/ suspense aspects of other books with something very emotional and raw. This was my first time reading the works of Celeste NG but it certainly won’t be my last.
Everything I Never Told You begins in 1977 with the body of Lydia Lee being found in the nearby lake after being reported missing. Her parents, James and Marilyn, are beyond devastated that their favorite child of 3 is dead and looking for answers despite learning from the police investigation that Lydia was a loner at school with slipping grades who insinuate this may have been a suicide. From there, the majority of the book goes back in time to the events leading to Lydia’s death. James was the intelligent and talented child of Chinese immigrants who always felt like he didn’t belong. He met his wife Marilyn in 1957 as her American culture professor at Harvard where they quickly fell in love before moving to Middlewood College in Ohio to teach. Marilyn grew up with big aspirations of becoming a doctor, this is quickly squashed with the impending pregnancy and quick marriage to James which causes a rift in her relationship with her mom who can’t believe her white daughter would marry an Asian man.
Following the birth of their son, Nathan and shortly after, their daughter Lydia, Marilyn is sucked into the life of a homemaker for 8 years. She learns of her mother’s passing, and even though they haven’t spoken since the wedding, she goes to her childhood home to deal with her mother’s possessions when she realizes she has completely let go of her dreams of being a doctor. This leads her to abandon her family in order to pursue her academic studies and finish her degree without informing her family. James and the children are left behind and afraid with James believing Marilyn left due to the pressures of their Chinese-American mixed family. After 9 weeks of being away, Marilyn discovers that she is pregnant with a third child, Hannah, and returns home understanding that she will have to let go of her dreams for good but can instead encourage Lydia to pursue becoming a doctor someday. Lydia is so afraid of her mother leaving that she dedicates her life to perfection and whatever her mother wants with her brother Nathan being the only one who understands her immense pressure to measure up while he is left neglected on the sidelines.
After years of Lydia buckling under her mother’s expectations, she begins to get overwhelmed and can no longer keep up their her advanced courses her mother expects her to take. She begins hanging out with their neighbor Jack, who is a childhood “enemy” of Nathan as she begins to see Nathan becoming resentful of her and her constant love and attention. When she learns of his acceptance and plans to leave for Harvard, she takes this as a personal slight and feels like he is abandoning her to drown under her parents expectations. Nathan is thrilled at the prospect of leaving the family and the constant neglect and emotional abuse as well as separating himself from Lydia who he’s grown to resent for getting all the attention he wish he had. Things come to a boiling point when Lydia runs away to the lake and jumps in with the intent of swimming back to shore. This brings us back to the present when Mariyln and James come to terms with the unrealistic expectations they forced upon Lydia and how their desires for a better childhood for themselves were constantly projected on their children and that if this isn’t rectified, they could just as easily lose their remaining children. Nathan and Hannah return to the lake when Nathan jumps in and realizes he will never fully understand Lydia’s death but has full control of his life moving forward.
Final Rating & Thoughts: 10/10
Everything I Never Told You was one of the most unexpected reads I have read in 2019 in the most delightful way because it was 100% emotional, raw, and relatable. I love how this novel was focused primarily on the family and really took an insight into each and every single family member because I found myself seeing a little bit of myself inside them all. I thought this was such an honest portrayal of a family and realistic problems and issues that make the reader completely understand more of Lydia’s inner turmoil as well as the inner turmoil boiling inside each character and the lack of communication with each other. Each character had their flaws and it was incredible to see both the incredible insightfulness of some members like Nathan and Hannah and the hopeful naivety of her parents James and Marilyn. Celeste NG wrote this book like a piece of art where I could feel the strength of the emotions of each of the characters to the point where I honestly wanted to cry or scream as I continued knowing that the miscommunication among the family would lead to the death of Lydia whom I grew to love mainly because she felt like she was me.
In 7th grade, I had reached my own boiling point just as Lydia did when I went to Boston Latin School after spending 2 years studying at a program to get into the school. My family and friends were so confident and sure of my ability to succeed that it was difficult for me to let them down even when I felt I was drowning in the school work and constant bullying at school. It wasn’t until my family discovered months later about my abuse and self-harm that they realized not only the harm I was doing to myself, but the harm they were doing by pushing, pushing, pushing. I don’t think I have yet to read a book that felt as it was written for me or about me the way I did with this one and it was incredible to see such honesty in a fiction novel. While Everything I Never Told You was of course written for reader entertainment, it also reads as a caution and warning to families. Parents will always want the best for their child and raise their children with the intention of having them achieve and receive everything they couldn’t but sometimes the weight of these expectations are too much for children to bear.
I absolutely LOVED the ending of this novel with Marilyn and James coming to terms with their part in this story and how what they perceived as love and encouragement really came off as constant pressure. They decide together that they need to love and nurture their children to be who THEY want to be in order to truly let them reach the success they always wanted. I also loved how this began with the attention to their wall-flower child Hannah who always grew up neglected in her siblings shadow as if her presence was unwanted. This offers them a second chance to parent the right way and I just found that message to be so beautiful as each member decides to turn their grief into a second chance at life and truly living. The themes and emotions tackled in this book are done with such grace where each character is well-defined with their strengths and flaws and motivations clearly on display for the reader to tackle. This is a must read for all - and I am already looking forward to reading more books from Celeste NG.