Somewhere, I heard Everything I Never Told You described as “an Asian Gone Girl.” Though I had some issues with Gillian Flynn’s smash hit, I enjoyed it more than not, and especially appreciated the unrepentant, malevolent, genius female sociopath at Gone Girl‘s core. (Why are there not more truly-despicable female characters out there? Authors?)
So when my library hold for Everything I Never Told You came up, I dove in excitedly, eager to unravel the mystery and discover the dark heart at the story’s core. Ng does an admirable job of gripping the reader by the throat from the first sentence:
Lydia is dead. But they don’t know that yet.
Almost immediately, things slow down as we enter the point of view of each of the remaining family members in turn, and watch them deal with the numbness and grief that accompany losing a daughter and sister.
For me, this was a case of pre-reading expectations dampening my enjoyment of the actual novel. Expectations: the great enjoyment-killer. If I had been expecting a more straightforward family drama, with my mind primed for the mystery to be more of a “mystery,” perhaps I would have found this to be a four- or even a five-star read. As it stands, this was a solid three stars for me.
Still, there was a lot to like about Everything I Never Told You. Some of the imagery was beautiful; many of the thoughts and actions from the point of view of Hannah, the youngest and most-ignored child, were honed to a scalpel’s edge and cut just as deeply.
Parents James and Marilyn are the most fully-formed characters in the novel, given extensive backstories so the reader understands just how they ended up being the people that they are. Again, this produced some of the finer writing in the book. James, the son of Chinese immigrants, craves acceptance and the ability to blend into mainstream white American society; Marilyn is the daughter of a single mother who sees how domesticity can be a prison, and vows to fulfill her dreams of becoming a doctor. Both of these driving motivations are placed squarely on the shoulders of Lydia, the much doted-on–and stifled–daughter.
Lydia is the cipher at the center of the novel; discussed and dissected in turn by her father and mother; protected and supported by her brother, Nath; and idolized by her younger sister Hannah. We are kept an arms’ length from her, only told what she must have been doing and thinking by others, until the novel’s end. A smart move, on Ng’s part, to make Lydia as mysterious to us as she was to her parents.
Where Everything I Never Told You stumbled was in its handling of Lydia’s death itself. The novel struggles to create a mystery around who killed Lydia, and why; Nath is convinced that boy-next-door Jack had something to do with it, while Marilyn suspects a shadowy stalker. Honestly, though, I was never fooled and felt as though the answer was fairly obvious, almost from the very first page. (I am no great mystery-solver, either!) To have the mystery be so simple–and have none of the characters really acknowledge it–stretched my disbelief to the breaking point.
At best, this was a story about a dysfunctional family, whose heavy parental expectations and lack of open communication stunted all of their children in different ways. But when you are expecting the exceptional sociopath of Gone Girl, the smaller lies and betrayals of a suburban family–even one that is mixed-race at a time when people of Asian heritage were still called Orientals–are not quite as impressive. Still, on the strength of Ng’s writing alone, I would be interested to see what she produces next.
Bookwanderer Rating: Three out of five stars
Bookwanderer Tagline: “What made something precious? Losing it and finding it.”
Other Reviews: The Female Gaze, Bustle, Sarah’s Book Shelves, A Little Blog of Books