August 02, 2015

Book Review: Everything I Never Told You

A few weeks ago, I finished reading Celeste Ng's novel, Everything I Never Told You, in three short days.  As a three-books-at-a-time sort of reader who takes months to finish a single book, I was amazed how quickly I was pulled headfirst into this novel's intriguing storyline.  An eloquent writer, Ng keeps the reader emotionally invested in her novel: this is also part of the intrigue.  Everything I Never Told You is a thriller set in the 1970s--it is a story about a promising teenager daughter, of a socially isolated mixed-race Chinese American family (the Lees), who mysteriously disappears one day.  The readers soon finds out that she has died, drowned in the nearby lake where families frequent on hot summer days in their small, white Midwest town.  As the Lees come to terms with the unexpected death of a favorite child, the tense family dynamics are revealed, painful and entrenched in their daily lives--and in their every interactions with one another.  The family dynamics are shaped as much by personal shortcomings as by the consciousness-shifting years of the 1960s and 1970s.

via my IG @ectiwshop

What I had not expected was the emotional sensitivity and the weaving of historical facts into the storyline, as each character reflects an aspect of the 1960s and 1970s social upheaval in America.  For instance, Marilyn, the white American mother, can be described as a feminist-in-hiding, whose attempts at escaping what she considers to be a stifling life as a housewife forever alters her family; the father, James, is an American-born Chinese, a professor of US history, whose deep-rooted internalized racism stunts all aspects of his personality in relation to others; the children themselves are each emotionally conflicted in their own way.  Nath, the eldest, is bright, quiet, and thoughtful, but is treated indifferently by his parents, while Lydia, the reticent middle child, is showered with her parents' love but also stifled by their unwavering expectations of her, which lead to her sudden death.  Only Hannah, the youngest and most intuitive of the three children, is able to see others clearly for who they are.  It is she, the ignored, observant ten-year-old Hannah, who the reader relies on to gauge the actions of other characters in the novel.  A question that came to me again and again as I read this novel was: Is introversion a reaction to one's environment, an inherent personality trait--or both?

Ng's sensitive portrayal of a multiracial family, comprised of unflinchingly imperfect people, is the highlight of this novel. How she skillfully makes her characters collide, interpret, and love one another, beyond racial boundaries and cliches, is pure fine-tuned storytelling.  Ng's writing style is both polished yet conversational, poetic and viscerally poignant--especially when describing internal dialogue.  The storyline travels back and forth in time, but is made relevant and understandable to the reader.  Her use of non-conventional similes, such as, for instance, when a drop of water trickles down the eldest son's neck "like a shy little mouse" are unique, but very abstract.  This novel an engrossing, cohesive, and complex-breezy read, while her honed-in perspective on a dark subject matter is refreshing.

With the tiger mom and the model minority myths still entrenched in the American consciousness, this novel attempts to Americanize the Chinese American family as a subject through the lens of the Lee family.  With Ng's deft writing style, the novel won Amazon's best book of the year award.  However, to be analytical here, the book does not market itself as an "ethnic American" book, which other popular Chinese American literary works have done in the past (for example, those by Amy Tan and Gish Jen).  Ng's novel does the opposite: the cover is devoid of Asian-style motifs, the layout is melancholy and sensationalist-thriller in appeal with its inclusion of dark blues and bold title formatting, adding to its mass market appeal.  The focus here is on content--and on literary readership at large rather than on the romanticized, Orientalist niche.  Yet, the novel's cover, without any direct indicators of race or ethnicity beyond the author's name, implies that we live in a post-racial society--where racism is no longer an issue.  We surely do not, as the novel compellingly illustrates.  

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Ng, who received an MFA from the University of Michigan, grew up in Pennsylvania and Ohio.  She has spoken openly about her own experiences with racism, some of which are included in the pages of her novel.  Ironically enough, part of her allure as a writer (and the allure of her book) is that Ng, herself a Chinese American, was initially hesitant to write about Chinese American characters because of the assumption that she must write only about race.  She says to The Guardian:

“There’s this sense that whiteness is the default and does not need to be questioned. That you’ve got a race if you’re black, or any kind of Asian, or any kind of Native American, but that you have no race if you are white. When I started writing, for a long time I was hesitant about writing any Asian characters.”
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Everything I Never Told You shines through thick fog like a welcoming searchlight.  Yes, the book is about a multiracial family, but somehow we can all relate.  Heart-rending and insightful, the ending is emotionally fulfilling, pulling together the loose ends of the novel, and revealing to the reader much more than we expected to hear.

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