Everything I Ever Crammed Into A Melodrama

everythingInevertoldyouCeleste Ng’s debut novel If you say “Harvard” a lot and have your characters work as professors and aspire to be doctors, can you make A Serious Novel out of a soap opera plot?

That’s debatable, I suppose, but Celeste Ng’s Everything I’ve Never Told You isn’t a vote for “yes.”

In “small-town Ohio” (we hear that phrase quite a lot) in the 1970s, Chinese-American James and Caucasian Marilyn are raising their three children – or, more accurately, ignoring their eldest son and youngest daughter while obsessively focusing on their middle child, Lydia.

Lydia’s blue eyes give her father hope that she’ll be more accepted in the white community, becoming the popular child he never was. As the first girl born in the family, Marilyn foists upon Lydia her own aborted dreams of being a doctor rather than a housewife. The fact Lydia is neither well-liked nor particularly scholarly doesn’t feature into either’s fantasies.

When Lydia’s body is found in a local lake, the family unravels and James and Marilyn have to sort out which parts of their lives, their family and their beliefs about Lydia are true and which are illusions.

For much of the book, I found the interplay between the characters interesting. I don’t know that the characters are especially realistic James and Marilyn are astoundingly single-minded), but they’re layered and richly rendered. The extent to which this family never talks about anything (seriously) strained credibility, but I was willing to play along because, hey, it’s a novel! Something has to happen to keep it moving, you know?

It was at the three-quarters mark or so where Ng started to lose me. An editor must have encouraged to her to set her story up as a mystery, so it feels a little like that at first, but this is the point at which it became clear it is not, in fact, really a whodunit. There was also one reveal in particular that made me think, “Okay, Celeste. Maybe don’t feel the need to pull out every trick in the melodrama potfolio, okay?”

This all being said. Everything I Never Told You is very readable. It’s easy to attach quickly and keep moving through the lives of the Lee family. It won’t make my “Best Of” list, but it’s not one I regret spending time with, either.

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