Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Ng on Everyth(i)ng...

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
Hardcover Edition
I felt I really must read this after seeing Shaina's review at Shaina Reads at the end of August 2015. As I read her review, I said aloud, "No not 'everyone and their pet cat' has read/reviewed this one...for instance, I haven't!" :) When I started checking out others' reviews, I had to read it myself...just to see! 

Firstly, I was reminded of Jhumpa Lahiri's writing style. I have read and absolutely loved Interpreter of MaladiesThe Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth. Like Lahiri, Ng has quite the knack for making each character real and believable, as if they could be my friends and neighbors. I also felt elements of Ng's writing were similar to Maeve Binchy (Too many books published to list them all, even just the ones I've read!) in that we got to know the characters so very well as to realize the underlying motivations for their intentions, actions, and attitudes. Miss Celeste is a master of the first sentence(s), too. I realize everyone else has also used this in their review, but it really is incredible as an least it was for me! 
  Lydia is dead. But we don't know this yet. 1977, May 3, six-thirty in the morning, no on knows anything but this innocuous fact: Lydia is late for breakfast. (1)
Wowzers! I was hooked instantly! Who wouldn't be? Her mother, Marilyn, starts searching, inside the house, outside the house, confirming that her car is still in the garage, though Lydia doesn't know how to drive, and then she learns Lydia is not in her first-period class, 11th-grade physics (though she is in 10th grade). We later see how ironic that is...

We learn that Lydia has done much to camouflage who she really is and wants to be, simply to keep peace within her household, especially with her parents. Her father, James is of Chinese heritage, though born and bred in the U.S.A., his phenotype is definitely Asian/Chinese, as are Lydia's brother and sister, Nath and Hannah. However, Lydia's phenotype is much more similar to her mother's, who is 'white.' She has her mother's blue eyes, though her hair is dark. The prejudice within this family is no different than so many others, the child most resembling the majority race/ethnicity is the favored one, and that would be Miss Lydia, the middle child of James and Marilyn's three children. I remember reading that even Malcolm X preferred his own children who had lighter skin and facial features that appeared less ethnic. That shocked me! But I have read many other articles confirming that same prejudice for those most resembling the majority among many cultures and subcultures. 

As with many females in the late '60's and throughout the '70's, Marilyn abandoned her own academic/career dreams to get married and have a family. As a female who graduated from high school during the '70's, my mother told me I should definitely go to college, "just as a backup" in case I didn't get married or I ended up divorced and single (like her) or something happened to my husband... I still chuckle at that even now. Though it is more sad than funny... I suppose most of us as we get older sometimes wonder what might have made a difference for us in our lives and the decisions we made as teenagers. But we can't go back! :) We must continue onward and upward! 

  How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and daughters. Because of Lydia's mother and father, because of her mother's and father's mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing, and her father had brought her home. Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. (25) 
Much cooler Paperback Cover! 
And this pretty well sums it up! There was a time when Marilyn had simply driven off, moved to another city, and enrolled in college courses, determined to complete her bachelor's degree and then obtain an MD. She had simply abandoned James, Nath, and Lydia to their own devices with no notice. I could relate to her desires, as I had my own similar desires during years spent as a stay-at-home mother, though I was fortunate enough to be able to return to college and complete by bachelor's degree once my three children were in school. I could understand Marilyn's desire to be 'different,' as I was much the same way in high school. Fortunately for me, however, there were at least 4-5 other female classmates who were also science/math nerds, so I was not the ONLY female in those science classes, which I am sure helped me feel much more comfortable than if I had been alone amongst the males. Though I typically preferred hanging out with the males, as opposed to females--I was not interested in talking about boys, dating, clothes, or gossip, which I considered to be a 'waste of my time.' After all, I always had a good book I could be reading, or a sewing or knitting project I could work on... So it might have been easier for me than it seemed to be for her. 

James might not have felt quite so 'different' as an adult had he been hired as a faculty member at Harvard, as he had expected. Once that prospect was removed from his list of possibilities he took a position at a small college in Ohio, where, of course, there would be very little to no 'diversity' among the students/faculty/staff on campus, or the surrounding community. He and his children bore the brunt of prejudice and discrimination as meted out by the local citizenry. I can also relate to that. Though my situation in childhood wasn't nearly as dire, I experienced similar behaviors and attitudes in my own small-town rural Midwestern community simply because my mother was divorced and she and I lived with my grandmother. That was unheard-of back in the '60's and '70' least in such rural mid-western small-town environments in the U.S. Overall, it was fairly easy to ignore the older kids on the bus, but I remember not understanding why other adults disliked my mother and talked about her so. (It wasn't like she slept around or anything!) It was obviously much more intense, blatant and hurtful for Lydia and Nathan in small-town Ohio than it was for me. James had worked hard to learn as much as possible as a child, so he could earn a scholarship to attend the private school where his father worked in maintenance. And as a child he was constantly worried that other students would learn of his connection to his father, the janitor. That's just awful! But I'm sure it would be true! He continued to feel uncomfortable even as an undergraduate and then graduate student at Harvard--he had no friends and had never truly connected with any of his peers, until Marilyn...though she was his student, not truly a peer...until she dropped his 'Cowboy' class and they became lovers. They were not that far apart in age. 

Ah, people do create others' stories for themselves, as Lydia and Jack's relationship demonstrates. In a startling discovery, Hannah is the only one who sees Jack's true feelings and the target of his love. Everyone believed Jack was having sex with all the girls who rode in his car. No questions asked. Though no one knew the truth except Jack and those girls. I was shocked by James seeking out Louisa, though of course, they did share the same Asian/Chinese looks, and perhaps that, combined with the loss of his daughter and his seeming inability to connect in a meaningful way with Marilyn at the time 'pushed' him into anothers' arms...but personally, I still cannot condone sleeping with people other than your own spouse/partner when in a committed relationship. And poor little Hannah! It was as if she was always just an afterthought to James and Marilyn, and of course, we can easily imagine it might be difficult for Marilyn not to resent Hannah as the reason she had to once again abandon her own college education and hopes of a professional career. During her mother's absence, Lydia discovers her maternal grandmother's cookbook under a bookcase and as she reads it realizes how unhappy her mother must be and blames herself and Nath.
  If her mother ever came home and told her to finish her milk, she thought, the page wavering to a blur, she would finish her milk. She would brush her teeth without being asked and stop crying when the doctor gave her shots. She would go to sleep the second her mother turned out the light. She would never get sick again. She would do everything her mother told her. Everything her mother wanted. (137)
And so begins Lydia's own 'hell on earth' as she attempts to be the person her mother and father both expect her to be...what they were not. Any loving, caring parent always wants life to be 'better' for their child/children, however, pushing anyone too much to make them into the person you want them to be is a dangerous proposition, and will usually destroy a relationship.

One of the underlying themes in this book was resentment...there was so much to go around! Both Hannah and Nathan couldn't help but resent Lydia because she was the obvious 'favorite' of both parents. Although Nath had one day actually pushed her off the pier into the lake, Lydia was petrified to think of daily life without him to confide in and debrief with, as well as resenting his apparent freedom to do as he pleased, select his own program of study, and school, etc. Poor Hannah, of course, had to resent both her brother and sister and the way she was constantly ignored, but especially her mother and father for their lack of love and attention, which was all showered on Lydia, then Nath, and then...not her,never her... I believe James resented Marilyn's constant attention to Lydia, feeling she carried her expectations for her daughter too far, putting too much pressure on her. I had a good friend in elementary school who was pressured by her parents to be 'perfect' in her schoolwork. She once scored an "A-" on a high school exam and was grounded and had to eat supper with a textbook at the table, studying. She was punished for an A minus! Each grade she earned must be an "A." She ended up not going to college, though she was our valedictorian! Why? Simply because she refused to allow herself to be pressured like that any more--she knew her parents would never leave her alone, but harass her as they had always done. Isn't that sad? Not that every single person should go to college, it is definitely not for everyone, however, you should at least give your children the freedom to decide without undue pressure. I felt sad for her, as I did for Lydia.

Nath's resentment is finally released somewhat as he pushes Lydia off the pier and into the lake,
...the second he touched her, he knew that he had misunderstood everything. When his palms hit her shoulders, when the water closed over her head, Lydia had felt relief so great she had sighed in a deep choking lungful. She had staggered so readily, fell so eagerly, that she and Nath both knew: that she felt it, too, this pull she now exerted, and didn't want it. That the weight of everything tilting toward her was too much. (154)
...It was too big to talk about, what had happened: it was like a landscape they could not see all at once; it was like the sky at night, which turned and turned so they couldn't find its edges. It would always feel too big. He pushed her in. And then he pulled her out. All her life, Lydia would remember one thing. All his life, Nath would remember another. (155) 
Everywhere things came undone. But for the Lees, that knot persisted and tightened, as if Lydia bound them all together. (158)
Yet Lydia herself was coming 'unglued,' so to speak, as Nath thought:
When I get to college--he never completed the sentence, but in his imagined future, he floated away, untethered. (168)
As Nath imagined a life of his own, Lydia was drowning in thoughts of a bleak future without him to save her. Though just as new insights appear to her, her life ends...

I loved this book on so many levels and for so many reasons. Ng brilliantly depicts the marginalization felt by so many who are 'different' from the majority population, especially how that can negatively affect relationships. The danger of parents exerting too much control over their children, living through them, forcing their own unfulfilled goals upon their offspring, effectively smothering any hopes they may have for asserting themselves. Simply put: a great read! Have you read it yet? Are you considering it?

Some other insightful reviews: 


  1. There was so much about this book that I loved, too, and thought that it pulled in so many important themes without feeling weighted by a message.

    1. That is an excellent summary, Shannon! Yes, Ng never 'beats the reader over the head' with any of it, really... :)

  2. Well...add me to that list of people that have never read or reviewed this one. It is a possible selection for my book club in 2016, though, so I will probably come off that list soon. Thanks for the review!

    1. It will be one of my suggestions to my book club for 2016, too. It would provide great discussion topics, in my opinion. Thanks for stopping by!