Friday, January 2, 2015

Everything I Never Told You

Title:  Everything I Never Told You
Author:  Celeste Ng
Publication Information:  The Penguin Press HC. 2014. 304 pages.
ISBN:  159420571X / 978-1594205712

Book Source:  I read the book based on a friend's recommendation.

Opening Sentence:  "Lydia is dead."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes you almost forgot:  that you didn't look like everyone else ... you ... felt just like another someone in the crowd. Sometimes you didn't think about it at all. And then sometimes you noticed the girl across the aisle watching, the pharmacist watching, the checkout boy watching, and you saw yourself reflected in their stares:  incongruous ... Every time you saw yourself from the outside, the way other people was you, you remembered all over again ... You saw it in photos, yours the only black head of hair in the scene, as if you'd been cut out and pasted in. You thought:  Wait, what's she doing there? And then you remembered that she was you. You kept your head down and thought about school, or space, or the future, and tried to forget about it. And you did, until it happened again."

"Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet." So begins the powerful story of the Lee family. Lydia is the middle child of James and Marilyn Lee. The "I" in the title Everything I Never Told You applies to all the members of the Lee family.

The idea of feeling out of place repeats throughout the book. "People decide what you're like before they even get to know you ... The think they know all about you. Except you're never who they think you are." All family members make regrettable decisions based on their individual feelings; yet, each one says nothing to anyone else.

James has felt the outsider all his life. Being of Chinese American heritage, he looks different than anyone else in their Ohio home in the 1970s. "Different has always been a brand on his forehead, blazoned there between the eyes. It has tinted his entire life, this word; it has left its smudgy fingerprints on everything." Sometimes, he can't quite believe that Marilyn actually married him. He thinks, perhaps, she would have been better off with someone more like her. This overwhelming feeling of not ever belonging has led to the fact that in a community where he has lived for years, James has no friends. Yet, he does not see the connection between his own thinking and his situation, and he does not tell anyone.

Marilyn has her own secrets - the dreams she had for her life; the reality she chose; and her wish to see her daughter live a different life. Marilyn has doubts about her life; she feels out of place in this life of a small town, children, and family; this is the not the life she had envisioned. Marilyn's regrets project onto her treatment of her own children, much to their detriment. She does not see it, and she does not tell anyone of her own turmoil.

Nathan is the oldest child, with his own dreams of making his way in the world. He is torn between wanting to leave and those he leaves behind. Nathan is brilliant; yet, his achievements are overshadowed by the family's focus on Lydia. He suspects someone in Lydia's death. Yet, he does not tell anyone.

Hannah is the baby of the family. All of her parents' attention is focused on Lydia; Hannah seems a bit of an afterthought in her family. All Hannah wants is some attention and some love. She observes much about her family. Yet, she does not tell anyone.

Lydia was the center of the family's attention and expectations. She has her mother's blue eyes, and her father's black hair. All of Marilyn's hopes and dreams seemed embedded in Lydia's future. Were those Lydia's dreams and hopes? What did she think or feel? Did she feel the burden of the expectations placed on her? Lydia never told anyone, and now she is dead.

In the wake of the tragedy of Lydia's death, everything left unsaid starts to emerge. Slowly, the book travels through the present and the past to build the emotions and family ties that lead to this tragedy. The behavior of James and Marilyn in this book is unlikable. They are parents; yet, someone needs to tell them of the damage they inflict upon their children. So many questions I want to ask them about the decisions in their lives. Why did you give up on dreams? Why did you settle in a small Midwestern town without much diversity? How do live for such a long time in a place and not make any friends? How do you so obviously favor one child over another? They appear lost - lost in the past and in regrets.  I want to understand them and make things better for them despite all their unfathomable decisions.

The writing in this debut novel is beautiful. The word that comes to mind is gentle. It gently leads you through the thoughts and emotions of each member of the dysfunctional Lee family. It creates a picture of each one - in their broken, faulted reality. The adult characters are not likable but well-written. You can see each perspective. Whether or not you agree with the perspective, you sympathize. The pictures also gently blend together to create a picture of the Lee family and the tragedy that occurs. It leaves you sad and wishing that you could undo some of the choices and mend what is broken. Yet, it is too late for Lydia. Lydia is already dead.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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