Everything I Never Told You By Celeste Ng: Book Review

Celeste Ng’s debut novel, “Everything I Never Told You,” is a literary thriller that begins with some shock elements: a missing girl, a lake, a local bad boy who was one of the last to see her and won’t say what he knows. The book opens in 1977, with chapters taking place in that year alternating with sections set in the mid 60s, when a previous crisis – also involving a missing person – struck the Lee family, which comprises James, a Chinese-American history professor at an Ohio college, his wife Marilyn, an American medical school dropout, and their three children.


The Lee family faces tragedy when they discover their favourite daughter, Lydia, dead in a nearby lake. As a half-white, half-Chinese family and the only Asians in their small town, they endure the isolated grief and unresolved mystery of Lydia’s death: was it murder or suicide?

 Indeed, the demise of Lydia Lee, the teenage middle daughter of a Chinese American professor and his Virginia-born wife, is announced in the very first sentence. “Lydia is dead,” Ng writes. “But they don’t know this yet.” 

With this as a starting point, “Everything I Never Told You” can’t help but feel a little like a mystery, and the pages that follow do reveal, gradually, the cause of Lydia’s death. At its core, though, Ng’s book is a conventional, domestically cantered novel about a delicate family dynamics behind the Lee family. 

Marilyn had been his student when they fell in love, and once she became pregnant with Nath, she had to put a halt on her dream to become a doctor. Marilyn and James then had Lydia, who they both favoured significantly. Despite Nath’s academic success, Marilyn and James invested more energy and love into Lydia—James wanted her to gain the popularity he always lacked (after being denied a job at his alma mater, Harvard, due to this), and Marilyn wanted her to pursue the career she could not. With this constant pressure Lydia rebels by going out with the archetypal boy next door, Jack Wolff. As Nath always had a close relationship with Lydia, he feels protective over her when it comes to Jack. In contrast, due to his rocky relationship with his father, Nath is eager to leave for Harvard as his family has already moved on to the next child. Hannah, the youngest, feels a similar type of neglect, except with the added facet that she feels already forgotten despite just being born. 

Lydia’s sudden death further exacerbates the overarching strain in the family. Every member of the family feels some sort of guilt or regret as they reflect on and re-evaluate their memories of her. The premise of the novel begins questioning how Lydia dies, but transforms into a much bigger investigation into family, ambition and sacrifice.

Ng brilliantly depicts the destruction that parents can inflict on their children and on each other. For reasons of their own, Marilyn is desperate for Lydia to become a doctor, while James’s fondest hope is for his daughter to become an American and be friends with all the gleaming-toothed, white-faced high-school girls. Crucially, James’s academic speciality is the history of the cowboy, which he selected as the subject of study most specific to the US. But Lydia, as we learn in scenes from the past, cannot see herself becoming the all-American physician of her folks’ dreams. It is the pressure to do so that effectively kills her.

Each of her family suffers some kind of identity crisis: her brother Nathan is off to Harvard, where his reception will not be uniformly warm. And does Nathan’s conviction that their neighbour Jack knows how his sister died result from a belief that the boy is a murderer, or that he is a racist?

Marilyn is estranged from her cold and distant mother, a home economics teacher who prays at the feet of Betty Crocker and doesn’t approve of her daughter’s marriage. “You’re sure,” she asks after meeting James for the first time, “that he doesn’t just want a green card?”

James is a U.S. citizen. At the same time, he has never quite felt he belonged anywhere, and not just because he grew up as the lone Asian student in a Midwestern boarding school where his father was the janitor. In the 1960s, he became one of the first Asians to lecture in U.S. history at Harvard — but his students treated him like an exotic interloper. Years later, he has not shaken his sense of loneliness. Nor is he any less driven. His ambitions hover like a cloud over the family, especially over his oldest son, Nath.

“Though Nath dreamed of MIT, or Carnegie Mellon, or Caltech … he knew there was only one place his father would approve: Harvard. To James, anything else was a failing,” Ng writes. Nath can see that “Lydia has never really had friends, but their parents have never known.” He’s privy to the many ways Lydia has feigned normality — by pretending to talk to friends on the phone, for instance. He is “amazed at the stillness in her face,” the way his sister “can lie without even a raised eyebrow to give her away.”

It is hard to like any of the characters apart from Hannah whose passivity makes the reader pity her, yet with all of the characters the readers does understand their behaviour and reason behind every action they take. They might not be likable but they are relatable as they do exist in our society and we have seen such people in our daily life. 

Identity and acceptance is something we all strive for but when the desire for both reaches an extreme limit then that’s when they turn into a destructive tool. 

The book is engaging and starts off quite strong but half way through you feel its repetitive and does drag on at times though it is a fairly enjoyable read. We have given it 3/5 rating.