Monday, November 7, 2016

'Everything I Never Told You' by Celeste Ng: Not Just Another Gone Girl

“He can guess, but he won't ever know, not really. What it was like, what she was thinking, everything she'd never told him. Whether she thought he'd failed her, or whether she wanted him to let her go. This, more than anything, makes him feel that she is gone.”

Sometimes parents love their children so deeply and so much that they don't realize that they are smothering them.  The expectations we place on our kids are often from our own missed opportunities or things that we learned in life that we believe our kids need to learn in order to survive.

We don't mean to hurt them, but sometimes we love them too hard and just need to let them live their own lives by making their own mistakes and creating their own stories.

Celeste Ng's debut novel "Everything I Never Told You" adeptly studies the life of one family as they struggle to understand what happened to their daughter Lydia.  The book opens with the sentence "Lydia is dead." Although it might seem like an overdone opening to a cliched story line about the disappearance of a teenage girl, Ng's skillful writing is anything but cliche, and her characters are heartbreakingly flawed people who seem to be doing all the right things in a small Ohio town in 1977.  They are Harvard educated.  The parents are dedicated to the success of their children, Lydia, Nath and the often forgotten third child, Hannah.  The dad, James, is a college professor and he wants nothing more than his daughter to be well liked and for his son to get into Harvard.  The mom, Marilyn, devotes herself to helping her daughter  stand out academically - to be the best and the brightest and to pave a path of academia for her future.  She tells her "You have your whole life in front of you.  You can do anything you want."

Unfortunately, though, both James and Marilyn want too much for Lydia and never really see Lydia for who she might want to be.  Instead, both of them burden their daughter with what they always wanted in their lives.  James wants his Asian American daughter to fit in and not stand out, to be well liked and normal even amid the blatant racism in their Midwest small town.  Marilyn wants her daughter to be the best and the brightest just like she was before she sacrificed her own happiness to raise her three children.  She doesn't want her to settle.

Neither parent understands how putting their own struggles and past on their daughter essentially takes away her identity.

Selected as Amazon's Best Novel of 2014, and on NPR's and The New York Times' Best of 2014 list, Ng's novel glides through the aching landscape of a family torn apart - not just once by the disappearance of the mom, but twice due to Lydia's death.  It shows that some wounds don't heal and that even when we believe we are doing everything right, when our actions come from a place of past hurt, we often are doing more hurting than helping or healing.

This book was unanimously loved by our book club for the attention to details, the descriptions and the way the plot carefully unfolds.  We learn the depth of secrets, how quickly a family can grow apart, and the sadness that resides inside of each of us.  All of us liked, as well, that even in the melancholy and upheaval, hope exists.

To me, though, this novel sends a powerful warning to parents to let their children live their own lives and create their own stories.

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