Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Everything I Never Told You: Subtle Cruelty Is Still Cruel

From the first line of Celeste Ng's deftly crafted debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, we know something has gone horribly wrong for the Lee family. Lydia is dead, and we spend the next 300 pages finding out what led to this promising teenager's untimely and tragic demise. What we learn is just how subtle, even at times unintentional, cruelty can be and still be devastating.

The Lee family lives in a small college town in Ohio where father James is a college professor and mother Marilyn is a homemaker. Their three kids are all well-behaved and academically successful — indeed, oldest son James is about to head off to Harvard. Life should be good.

But appearances, in just about every sense of the word, can be deceiving. One of themes of the novel is how being viewed as different (and the subtle cruelty implicit in such narrow-mindedness) can have devastating consequences. For instance, James is the son of Chinese immigrants and Marilyn is white. From the moment of their marriage in the early 1960s, they've been an oddity to some — most notably Marilyn's mother. And what's more, Marilyn has harbored ambitions of being a doctor, something women rarely did in the 1960s — so she's dealt with the prejudices of being a woman in a male-dominated culture, and for being different in that she isn't satisfied with being a housewife or secretary. Part of the tension in the novel comes from the fact that neither James nor Marilyn ever seem to fully understand how each other feels about their "different-ness." And it creates a rift in their marriage and with their children.

Marilyn has determined that since she hasn't been able to follow through on her dream in the sciences, her daughter Lydia will in her stead. You've heard of crazy sports parents? Marilyn because a crazy science parent. And she pushes Lydia hard, probably way too hard. James also pushes his children — he wants them to be popular, to make friends, to have active social lives — something he never had growing up because he was considered "other." Again, this parental push isn't intended to be cruel, but it has that effect for their children, who feel pressured and uncomfortable in their own skins — and wind up being cruel to each other.

This novel is another great entry in the category of the dysfunctional family story, a "genre" for which I'm a total sucker. But the strength of this novel is that this family isn't dysfunctional on the level as, say, a Franzen family. The dysfunction here, like the cruelty, is much more subtle — and it slowly builds on itself until something has to break.

I loved this book — it's a novel that's as carefully constructed (in terms of structure, moving back and forth in time, and how secrets are revealed) as it is beautifully written. Very highly recommended.


  1. I listened to the audiobook a few months back and felt the same way - beautiful story, well written, and holds your interest throughout.

  2. Couldn't agree more. Loved how this unfolded with small pieces here and there leading up to large revelations. I'm still thinking about it months after finishing.

  3. Sheesh, I love stories that unwrap themselves slowly and profoundly like that. Luff.

  4. Not only did I love it, but every friend I told about it thanked me for the recommendation. If I can read a book in 2 days without putting it down it means I really liked it. I love the way the characters were developed. This novel delves into the lives of the parents and children in this family and explores how their own flaws affect the family dynamics. These are people you really care about. My only disappointment is that the parents never find out exactly what happened to Lydia. The title applies to each character in the book and gives the reader much to think about. Highly recommended.