What an incredibly annoying book.
Imagine, if you will, a family where the parents ignore two of their children but place all their hopes and dreams and crushing projections on the one daughter who winds up dead soon after her sixteenth birthday, after which the parents learn to become better parents, and maybe better partners to each other? Lydia Lee essentially gets refrigerated so her parents can become better people. It’s hella stupid. Honestly, a lot of the things the members of the Lee family do in this book are hella stupid, but it’s forgivable in the children: they’re kids, after all. Their feelings are harder to control and they make stupid assumptions about the world and each other. And I get that lots of adults never really grow beyond this adolescent stage of poor decision-making but damn, for this book to need the death of a beloved daughter to be the catalyst for that growth feels icky. Everything I Never Told You doesn’t read like the portrait of a family struggling to heal, it’s honestly more of a grotesque exercise in “take away the thing the parents love and maybe they’ll learn from it” only the thing is a girl. Gross.
Oh, and the thing Celeste Ng wants James and Marilyn Lee to learn? Is how to talk to each other. Honest to God, I don’t understand how an interracial couple that deals with the bullshit they do just navigating 1970s America does not already know how to talk to each other. Like when Marilyn wants to get a job in order to use her intellect but James thinks she’s only doing it out of concern for their finances, so he tells her not to because he’ll make tenure (he’s a college professor) soon and she’s all “okay” but then quietly seethes. Bitch, tell him it’s not about the money! Tell him you’re bored out of your mind! There is zero reason for them not to have a discussion about this! And I’m supposed to believe that these two love each other deeply when they never talk about their problems. Fucking ridiculous. It also freaks me out that Ms Ng claims she grew more sympathetic to the parents as she wrote this book, not less, as she became a parent herself. As the Asian parent of interracial children, I find this appalling. James and Marilyn are self-absorbed assholes. I’m just happy that Nath at least will perhaps literally escape their orbit.
Anyway, the prose is quite readable even if the plot veers between unbelievable and insultingly ludicrous. It’s very much MFA writing, as someone more clever than I pointed out. Technically proficient but kinda like if Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones somehow managed to have a half-Asian baby. Some people will like that kind of thing, I guess. I did not, tho at least Ms Ng is a better writer than Mr Franzen and Ms Sebold, particularly when it came to describing the children’s interior lives.