(Image from Barnes & Noble)
The Lees are an atypical family trying to live an average American life in a small Ohio town during the 1970s. They're trying so hard to be just like everyone else that 16-year-old Lydia is about ready to explode from the pressure. Her father, the Harvard-educated son of Chinese immigrants, pushes her to be a peppy All-American girl with a thriving social life. Her mother, a white woman who gave up her dreams of medical school when she got pregnant with Lydia's older brother, is desperate for Lydia to become the doctor she never had the chance to be. With no real friends and no great ambition to live out her mom's fantasies, Lydia fears disappointing both of them. As her parents' favorite child (neither her older brother nor younger sister are malleable enough to warrant much attention), Lydia cannot let this happen.
When Lydia's body is discovered in a nearby lake, it sends her family into a tailspin. Each member grieves in their own way, while hiding his/her own secrets from the others. The already dysfunctional Lees become even more so as they try to figure out what really happened to Lydia. As they search for answers, each will have to turn inward and search the depths of their own complicated hearts to discover some shocking truths—not just about Lydia, but about their family, their ambitions, and what is truly most important in life.
So, the thing about hype is that few books can ever really live up to the kind of grandiose expectations readers are often encouraged to demand of them. Everything I Never Told You, a debut novel by Celeste Ng, is a perfect example. While it offers an intriguing premise; spare, but strong prose; and some interesting thoughts on race, it's not blow-you-out-of-the-water amazing. I appreciate the story for its nuanced and fascinating look at an "ordinary" family, even if none of the characters are particularly likable. Because the Lees are such a hot mess, the story is a sad, depressing one. Although it's ultimately hopeful, I'm not sure I can say I enjoyed this novel. I found it engrossing, yes, but not really satisfying. It's not a page turner, a gentle family saga or a fun, happy beach read—it's a serious, haunting study of a group of unhappy individuals. With its emphasis on the damaging nature of secrets, selfishness, and sameness, Everything I Never Told You is, perhaps, a book that's meant to be discussed more than devoured. In the end, then, I found it to be an evocative story, just not a necessarily enjoyable one. If that makes any sense ...
If this were a movie, it would be rated:
for language (a couple of F-bombs, plus milder invectives) and sexual content
To the FTC, with love: Another library