2020 Reading Challenge

2020 Reading Challenge
Jill Elizabeth has read 6 books toward her goal of 240 books.

Guest Book Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Today I’m pleased to bring you a guest book review of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. The guest reviewer is with Reedsy, a fantastic source for book information – and a fantastic place to dip your toes into book reviewing if you’re interested! A link to Reedsy is provided in Ms Cordova’s bio sketch at the end. Enjoy!

Guest Book Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
by Savannah Cordova, Reedsy

Is it just me, or is Celeste Ng everywhere these days? I suppose when you have over a hundred thousand followers on Twitter and Reese Witherspoon options your most recent novel for a miniseries, you become somewhat culturally ubiquitous.

Not that I want to escape Ng — in fact, I follow her on Twitter for her relatable #writinglife anecdotes and sharp political takes. But until recently, I hadn’t actually picked up either of her books, even though they seemed right in my wheelhouse of suburban drama and lilting literary prose. Fortunately, this was remedied when I spotted a copy of Everything I Never Told You in my local used bookstore… and after devouring it within the week, I can confidently say the three dollars I paid for this book have been my best investment of 2020.

Everything I Never Told You kicks off like a suspense novel: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” However, as readers soon learn, Ng’s modus operandi is forging expectations just to subvert and even outright defy them — this is no suspense novel, but a poignant, intimate family saga about the complicated consequences of the life they’ve chosen. Though Lydia’s death remains shrouded in mystery until the final pages, the book’s purpose is not to solve this mystery, but to unpack the events and emotions leading up to and resulting from it (ironically providing much more psychological insight than your standard psychological thriller).

How else does Ng subvert expectations, you may ask? Well, this book follows a half-white, half-Chinese family in 1970s Ohio, and from that description you might think it’s external prejudice alone that causes their problems. But the Lee family suffers from myriad afflictions, and though the community’s perception is certainly one of them, many more of their issues are internal. James, the father, was a social outcast as a child and has spent his life attempting to assimilate into American culture; Marilyn, the mother, was a science whiz who dreamt of becoming a field-leading doctor before she fell pregnant.

These diametrically opposed desires become even more difficult to deal with in the wake of their children: the accidental oldest son Nath, the prized middle daughter Lydia, and the oft-forgotten third child Hannah. Both parents project their own shortchanged dreams onto Lydia, with James emphasizing the importance of social life and Marilyn prioritizing school, believing that her daughter would someday take her place in the medical field. For years, Lydia’s parents pull her apart like overstretched taffy, ignoring Nath and Hannah all the while. Then, suddenly, Lydia is gone — and with her, the tenuous bond that had kept the Lee family from disintegrating.

Ng’s handling of this emotional turbulence is heartbreaking and incomparable. I can’t think of another book that tackles intergenerational pressure and familial expectations with such skill. The narrative is carefully constructed and presented, with the third-person perspective shifting easily among all the members of the family, and flashbacks interspersing the present day as the Lees reel from Lydia’s death. Information is portioned out gradually, but never for shock value, as it might be in a more commercial novel — everything Ng does is ultimately in service of the story, and as such, the reader will be rewarded with each reread.

And the prose! Where to begin with my favorite similes: “a woman built like a sofa cushion,” “as familiar as boiled potatoes,” “the autopsy report quivers like something alive.” But despite her obvious literary prowess, Ng never flexes it in a way that’s obnoxious or opaque. She strikes the perfect balance between gorgeous language and straightforward sentences, which is exactly why I was able to tear through this book so quickly.

I have only two small qualms with Ng’s debut novel. The first is that I wish it were longer. Everything I Never Told You clocks in at just under 300 pages, and with the perspective split among the five members of the Lee family, the reader does get a multifaceted sense of them… but that doesn’t mean it’s entirely thorough. The book takes place over about 20 years, and necessarily skips over some of the less eventful bits in the timeline — still, I would have loved to see James and Marilyn’s early days of marriage and young children a bit more fleshed out, if only to provide more nuanced context to their later troubles.

The second is that, though 99% of what happened felt complex and realistic, there was a bit of heavy-handed symbolism from time to time. At one point, when they’re still children, a jealous Nath pushes Lydia into the local lake, effectively foreshadowing her death. But Lydia doesn’t even struggle — indicative of how she’s already “drowning under people’s expectations.” Of course, perhaps I’m trying to have my cake here and eat it too; one of the things I loved most about this book was how it managed to be both literary and accessible, and you can’t have that combo without a bit of overt symbolism.

In any case, I know I’m late to the game in reviewing this 2014 release, but I hope you’ll still allow me to recommend it wholeheartedly to all those who haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading it. Ng’s characters are profound, her prose wrenching, and despite my wish for even more of this book, I’m astounded at how much substance she packed into its diminutive case. Please read Everything I Never Told You, and if you need me, I’ll be over here embracing the Celeste Ng phenomenon, reading and watching everything she’s ever had a hand in creating.

Savannah Cordova is a writer with Reedsy, a platform that connects authors with the world’s best professionals and resources to help them publish a book. She’s very passionate about self-publishing in particular and making it possible for authors everywhere to achieve their dreams! In her spare time, Savannah enjoys reading contemporary fiction and writing short stories, though it will be awhile until she turns out anything Ng-worthy.

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