Thursday, December 4, 2014

Review of Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You was named Amazon's Best Book of 2014, so I read it with a whole bucket of high expectations. But all that celebration was ultimately distracting for me. I really liked this book, and it was an especially impressive debut. But I’m not sure I'd call it the best book of my reading year.

Part of the issue is that I have read books with similar plots and similar themes. This is a story of a family whose daughter goes missing and is ultimately found dead in the town pond. The novel follows each member of the family through his or her grief, and the reader watches as all the characters spin around each other but struggle to connect. Stewart O’Nan’s Songs for the Missing is one of my favorite books that follow a similar line.

What distinguishes Everything I Never Told You from others like it is its examination of ethnicity and identity. The Lee family is biracial – Chinese-American and white – and they live in a white, midwestern town in the 1970s. Part of what each character “never told” the others had to do with his/her relationship with the dead girl. But they also each kept silent about their experiences as outsiders. The reader experiences the characters’ untold stories in the past, before the death in the family, and in the present, in the midst of their grief. There’s a vague worm of a who-dunnit, but this exploration of identity is the central driver of the story.

This is a very, very sad book, from beginning to end. Have a box of tissues handy. I can’t say that this was a “fun” read, but it was definitely valuable to walk a while with these fascinating characters.  

You can read a bit about the author here.

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