Reading Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng reminded me of these words Tolstoy once wrote about happy families, how happy families are all alike and how unhappy families are all unhappy in their own way. Now, after having read this book, I’m not so sure he was absolutely right about that.
The book starts with a bold statement, the one you know can completely ruin the rest of the book because you already know how it’s going to end. Luckily, this was not the case – the death of Lydia may be the beginning and the ending of the book, but it’s what happens before her death that really matters.
The book centers on a mixed-race family, living in Ohio during the seventies. Dad, James, is from Chinese descent while Marilyn is American. James had to cope with racism and discrimination all his life, has been friendless all his life and desperately tries to blend in as much as he can – he even becomes a professor with a specialism in cowboys. Yup, it doesn’t get more American than that. The mom, Marilyn, has tried all her life to stand out. As a daughter of a single white American woman, Marilyn is to become the perfect housewife to a Harvard professor. However, Marilyn wants to become a doctor very badly, but when she meets James she becomes what she tried to avoid most.
James and Marilyn have three kids: their favorite, Lydia, who inherited her mother’s blue eyes and her father’s black hair. Her brother, Nath, who looks just like his father in every kind of way. Hannah, their baby sister, who gets neglected but sees and hears everything that happens in the Lee family residence.
When Lydia disappears, James learns about their daughter’s fake life – how she pretended to have long phone conversations with ‘friends’ she rarely speaks to in real life. Marilyn on the other hand, chooses to ignore this, and holds on to the idea that her daughter might have been a doctor one day and has to have been killed because she was happy and there is no way she could have wanted to be dead.
It becomes clear early on in the book that Lydia was never really happy and that none of the other family members ever were either. As the story unravels, the characters in it get confronted with their life as it is – full of hidden feelings, thoughts they never shared and love they never gave to each other in the right way.
Ng did everything right in this book. The only flaw she made is maybe that the book isn’t longer than it is. She also taught me something: that when family members only assume how someone feels, but never reassure how they really feel, it’s what breaks families apart. Maybe this is what makes unhappy families unhappy in the same way.
Written by Francisca Priem, YA book clubber and fervent keeper of guinea pigs.