The One with the Perfect Daughter

Celeste Ng, Everything I Never Told You (2014)

I’m not sure how much I should say about the story, but let’s assume you have either read it already, or read the summary on Goodreads (I’ll remain spoiler-free as much as possible). “Everything I Never Told you” is the story of the disappearance of Lydia Lee, a mixed-race teenager (father Chinese, mother Caucasian) in 1977 in small town Ohio. The book looks at the beginning like a thriller (murder? suicide?) but it is misleading: in fact, it’s rather a social and psychological study of a particular family.

I expected to be wowed because a few years ago everyone was raving about this book (Amazon’s book of the year!), but instead I had rather mixed feelings, which is ironic in a way because this novel is so much about expectations (parental expectations, racial, social, gender expectations…)

But first let me reassure you, I’m not a heartless, cruel Frenchie. Yes, this story about a family where everyone is misunderstanding everyone, where nobody says plainly what they feel and think and the terrible price they pay for it, almost made me cry. Of course my heart went for every member of the Lee family, for their regrets and disappointments and mistakes, for the racism they had to face, and the pressure. Pressure to perform, pressure to conform, pressure to be someone they are not.

But I also got annoyed by several things and by 90% of the book I couldn’t wait for the story to be over. I found it sad and a little bit systematic that everyone misread all. the. signs all. the. time. And that we readers are told the true meaning of actions and thoughts systematically. A lot of times I could connect the dots by myself. Another thing that felt gimmicky is that by giving us readers the prescience, we are bound to find meaning in everything; by starting with the death, we are bound to sympathize with (aka feel sorry for) the girl and her family. Instead, if I had approached the exact same story in chronological order, I would probably have found this girl and her family downright annoying. Annoying and cliché. Yes, they have nuances and complex motivations for their actions, but I was rarely surprised. I felt sorry for the parents and their poor choices of parenting, but I felt that the author tricked me into passing a judgment on them (“see what they have unknowingly set off?”).

I can’t tell if the racism the family faced in 1977 is accurate, or how much things have changed in the US of 2017. The story seems such a (preventable?) tragedy. I bet that the longing to belong still exists. I loved the themes that the book handled more than the final story but it’s alright. I’m still glad I read it.

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8 thoughts on “The One with the Perfect Daughter

  1. Ah, shame you didn’t like it more! Just goes to show we don’t agree about everything… I quite enjoyed it – although you are right that I felt like sitting them all down and yelling to them to just listen to each other and ask questions instead of just misunderstanding and misinterpreting the whole darn time! It’s certainly quite accurate about growing up Chinese in the 1980s in Britain, as a Taiwanese friend of mine told me. And I am sure it still holds true for a certain part of rural US. I thought there were some very touching moments (where she pretends to hold long conversations on the phone with her friends, for instance, or when the mother gives up cooking and only uses frozen meals). See, I remember them even several years after reading the book. It is by no means a GREAT book, but it was quietly effective, even if not the most beautifully written ever.

  2. We read this for my book group and I liked it. Initially I was so annoyed at the family, but then I tried to think about what people might have been like in the 1970s, especially with all the emotional issues the parents had before they even had kids. I tend to think that families share more with each other now but maybe they don’t actually. I didn’t love it, and I think your qualms are all perfectly valid!

  3. A cruel Frenchie! That made me laugh! I don’t think I could connect you and cruel together. Too bad the book a bit disappointing. At least you are still glad you read it so that’s something.

    • I should probably thank you for the compliment. My husband may tell you that i *can* be cruel with some books, but I’ve softened indeed, time is too short to spend on bad books and mean reviews…

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