Friday, April 3, 2015

Book Review: Everything I Never Told You

I feel like I enjoyed this debut book, Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng, far more than I should have. It contains elements which would normally be off-putting to me. But, it was the author's ability to get inside the hearts and souls of her characters which carried this novel for me to a height I hadn't expected. It felt like I was eavesdropping on the most private aspect of each of the character's inner workings. The story was profoundly sad and terribly enlightening, showing how mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, can often create emotional distance which tears at an individual until they reach the breaking point.

The beginning was impressive: "Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet. 1977, May 3, six thirty in the morning, no one knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast." So begins the tale of a family's contribution and response to Lydia's eventual undoing. Each family member is explored in depth to reveal the ways they have influenced and rocked Lydia's world. The mother, who longed to be a doctor but finds herself stuck in the very existence her own mother wanted for her, that of a housewife and mother. The father, who, tired of standing out, longs only to blend in, one Asian in a sea of Caucasians. The brother, who resents the fact that Lydia is the parental favorite, who wishes his parents would see his own potential instead of only focusing on their dreams and goals for Lydia. The sister, who stands by as a silent player, absorbing all the details of the lives around her.

In addition to exploring the ways each family member has pushed and pulled Lydia, we see the varied ways Lydia's death consumes and haunts each individual. The mother, faced with the loss of the one vessel in which she had placed all her unfulfilled hopes and dreams and convinced that someone has abducted Lydia, is undone. The father finds only one disturbing way to drown his sorrows. The brother is insistent that the neighborhood thug had something to do with Lydia's demise, but cannot speak of it because of the secrets he maintained from his parents on his sister's behalf. Again and again, I felt like I was invading personal space to see these characters stripped down to their most vulnerable essence. It is so telling, how we, as parents and siblings, can, by our own dysfunctions and woundedness, wound the ones we love the most. This book will stick in my mind for a long time to come.

Having said that, it did receive a fair number of perfectly awful reviews (and perhaps some of what was said reflects the reasons I feel I shouldn't have liked it as much as I did). Many reviewers felt it was just too overwhelmingly sad. They complained of flawed, entirely unlikeable characters. They questioned the actions of the characters as unrealistic. (Would a father really respond in that way? Could a mother really walk away from her children for a time to pursue her own ambitions and life goals? Would the brother really switch his feelings about the object of his intense hatred? Could there be any redemption possible for this mixed brew of self-absorbed characters?) Each of these criticisms feels perfectly valid, yet somehow, I did enjoy the book and felt moved by the exploration of this intense topic of a family's undoing. I seem to like books that emotionally move me and, despite there being minimal redemption for the characters involved, this book did manage to stir my emotions and pull me into the world of these tragically flawed characters. I look forward to future books by this author.

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