Review: Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You made the Best of 2014 lists of some of my favorite, most trustworthy sites: BookRiot, NPR, Shelf Awareness. These lists were helpful because I spent most of 2014 out of the country and out of access to new releases. But that also meant that any book I chose from said lists had a lot of hype to live up to.

So it was a bit of trepidation that I began listening to to Everything I Never Told You. From the beginning, it not only met, but surpassed my expectations. The first words, “Lydia is dead,” set the tone for the rest of the book. Not that everything will be laid out so blatantly—indeed circumstances are slow to unravel—but that her death will weigh heavily on the characters, as though in their grief they are the ones buried beneath six feet of earth. Lydia was the favorite of the family, with the long black hair of her Chinese American father and the blue eyes of her white mother. Her father wants her to be a well-adjusted and sociable teenager while her mother pressures her to study science and become a doctor. Her parents desperately want for her the things that were just out of their own reach.

The year Lydia dies is 1977, and mixed-race families in Ohio were still scarce enough to cause a stir. A newspaper article about her death notes that children of such marriages often have it hard, straddling two worlds. Strangers pull their eyelids sideways with their fingers at the children, tell them that they are other, not American, outsiders. Lydia and her brother Nath cling to each other, as only they understand the lonely situation that they find themselves in. Ng has said in interviews that all but one instance of racial prejudice her characters face are based on her or her family’s own experiences. These realistic touches create a believable atmosphere and obstacles the characters must face.

Throughout the book, nobody knows if Lydia’s death was an accident, suicide, or murder. Some of the marketing around Everything I Never Told You describes it as a mystery. Because of the unknown circumstances of Lydia’s death, it has some elements of a good mystery, but that is not where the emphasis of this story lies.Those who are in it for an intriguing who-done-it with twists and turns and fast plots will be disappointed. This is a book about families dealing with loss. Not only the loss of Lydia, but the loss of their own hopes and dreams. Slowly Ng peels back the layers, the hidden motivations behind the characters’ actions or inactions.Everything-I-Never-Told-You-1

I usually have a distaste for books about families who don’t talk to each other. If the whole book’s conflict could be resolved in a few open and honest conversations, and the characters just fail to do that, it falls apart for me. I kept expecting that feeling in Everything I Never Told You, but as the narrative progressed, as I got to know each of the characters, I felt sympathy and solidarity rather than annoyance. It’s as if the things they feel are so big that they cannot physically get their mouths around the them, as if they are so abstract that the words have not been invented yet. Or maybe it’s because this family doesn’t resent each other. Quiet anger doesn’t bubble over and drive a wedge between them. They still very much love each other.

The last hour of the book, I had what NPR refers to as a “driveway moment.” I came home from a walk to the grocery store, during which I’d been listening to the book, but didn’t want to turn my phone off. I sat in my home office, where I was supposed to be working, and finished listening. I’m the sort of of audiobook listener who likes to multi-task while listening—driving, cooking, gardening, walking, working out—but here I sat, totally absorbed in the book, not wanting to do so much as tap my foot. The mystery of Lydia’s death is heartbreaking. The loss of a life so young is never easy. And still, I didn’t want the story to end.

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