Everything I Never Told You is a novel by woman of color, writer of color, Celeste Ng, that discusses the limitations of race and gender in the 70’s, but is sadly still relevant today. Although the character whom this book is centered around dies in the beginning (not a spoiler), it is evident that Lydia wants to do everything her mother ever told her… but what about everything Marilyn never told her, and vice versa?
Marilyn has had to make a painful choice between “right” and “wrong,” career (passion) and family (duty). Men often get to choose if they want to be fathers, but women still don’t get to choose whether they want to be mothers. Marilyn and James have three children – Lydia, Nath, and Hannah. Lydia is blue-eyed and light skinned, making her the favorite. She’s the one who is expected to go far, and make something of herself that her mother never could. Nath is an aspiring astronaut, but his parents often neglect his feelings and thoughts to set their attention on Lydia – who desperately does not want the attention. Poor Hanna is lost in the shuffle, but will she be found?
There are mother-daughter, mother-son, father-son, father-daughter, and mother-father/husband-wife, motifs to explore and more, not to mention the relationships between siblings.
Ng writes evocatively and completely understands show, don’t tell. She doesn’t say people are/were racist. She doesn’t say why Marilyn and James are constantly fighting the urge to let their kids grow, and try to change them and mold them. The reader has all of the context clues. I was born in 1990, long after the events of this novel take place, but through Ng’s writing I was able to acutely understand the culture and timeframe. My mother is a white woman, married to my stepfather who is a Chinese man. Together, they have my youngest sister. The subtle and not so subtle racism in this novel was on point. Towards the end of the story, I was a puddle. I cannot explain enough how perfectly Ng gets the family dynamic, the racial dynamic, and the time period, let alone how wonderful the pacing of the novel was. it never got boring, or too much too soon. I will definitely be picking up another Celeste Ng novel in my future.
Enjoy some quotes:
“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 ever told her. Everything her mother wanted”
“As the young woman closed the gash with neat black stitches, Marilyn’s hands began to ache. She clenched her teeth, but the ache spread into her wrists, up to her shoulders, down her spine. It wasn’t the surgery. It was the disappointment: tha lie everyone else, she heard doctor and still thought – would forever think – man. The rims of her eyes started to burn… Marilyn blurted out, “I think I’m pregnant,” and burst into tears.