Family drama is a hit-or-miss genre for me, same with mystery. When I picked up Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You at my community college’s book sale, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I *was* happy to support the English department for a dollar. I have seen a few reviews around Cannonball Read, and I was interested to see for myself what the book would entail.
Lydia Lee disappears in the middle of the night in her 1970s suburban Ohio town, and is found dead in the nearby lake a few days later. This is not a spoiler: it’s the premise. The book starts with Lydia’s death and then moves backwards and currently in time to get us to this point. We get her parents’ backstory—her mom is white and her dad is of Chinese descent—which adds to the tensions that lead to Lydia’s disappearance. We see the family portrait that emerges from her death, as well as the varying perspectives from the characters enmeshed in the family drama.
Ng’s strength comes in addressing the questions whenever a young person dies: “How could this happen?” “Why did this happen?” Two of my husband’s former students were killed in a car accident before Thanksgiving this last year, and there was a surge of grief in our community as we grappled with the unfairness of death in people whose potential had not been met yet. I felt a resonance with the experience in the book, as family and acquaintances struggled to understand Lydia’s death or possible motivations.
Yet for me, this was not a five-star book. I feel like the drama heightened to melodrama—it just didn’t feel quite real or believable. Despite the time-travel aspect, the pacing felt off, and I sometimes got pulled out of the story with her flashbacks. It’s an interesting story, and Ng makes a provocative commentary on race relations in American history. It’s trying to achieve the status of a Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott novel, though it’s not quite there yet.
Cross-posted to my blog.