The Complexity of Choice in “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng
I picked up Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng expecting a popular thriller. What I got was a beautiful, dark, intersectional portrait of American womanhood.
The other day, I popped by my favorite local bookstore here in Madison, A Room of One’s Own, for something new. I came in with a few titles in mind, but, alas, nothing was in. As I browsed, I picked up Everything I Never Told you – I’d seen it all over Instagram and knew Ng had another book out that was pretty popular, too. I was looking for something quick, so this thin, self-described page-turner seemed to do the trick.
I don’t often get stuck into books from the beginning, but I was tearing through it from page one. The language is soft and dreamlike for a murder mystery and the narrative floats from one member of the Lee family to the next. The plot turns subtly and folds over itself to create a full picture of the family. Sometimes the events are predictable, but the voice is nuanced and driving so the plot feels rich instead of archetypal. It’s the kind of book that hovers around you like a mist for a few days after you finish it.
It seemed timely that I read the book last week during International Women’s Day because so much of what I loved about it is the way it portrays the complexity of several generations of women (and yeah, I know how cliché it is to call depictions of women ~complex~). It’s not a simple feminist tale of “she was faced with adversity and overcame it” – the women in this novel struggle. They are imperfect people working through their own trauma, their community’s racism, and the pressures of liberation and conformity in nuanced ways that are so recognizable it hurts. I’ve been thirsty for female characters who are flawed and brilliant and difficult and this book delivered.
What hit home for me the most, though, is the way this book beautifully captures the pain of falling into a stereotype. Ng’s character Marilyn is a promising scientist who dreams of becoming a doctor, but after meeting her husband in college and getting pregnant she leaves school to become a mother and wife, just as Marilyn’s traditional housewife of a mother always advised her. Although Marilyn always wishes to pursue her education again, she leaves her dreams behind for her family even if it means becoming a stereotype that she spent her whole life pushing against. Something about her situation panged my heart – the pain of letting your dream of trailblazing go for another life that brings you joy, but isn’t as recognizably “feminist”.
Of course there’s so much going on in Marilyn’s case and it’s pretty clear she never lets it go, but her struggle to become something more than a stereotype really struck me. There have been moments when I have made decisions that were best for me, but were seen as “stereotypically feminine” by others. I studied the arts in school, I moved in with a boyfriend after college, I like to cook and have a clean domestic space. I know myself well enough now to know that these are simply parts of who I am, but I have also faced criticism from others and myself that I am failing by falling into a traditional female role – that I am somehow not really a feminist because I am doing something “stereotypically feminine”. It’s complicated both in my life and in the book, but there was something about Marilyn’s chagrin at feeling like a stereotype that felt too real and has left me reeling since I put the book down.
I definitely recommend picking this one up, if you haven’t already – I just lent it to my mom and plan on sending it to a friend. There’s so much in it, especially for a book that’s under 300 pages: discussions of race and class, generational models of feminism, the rewriting of memory, the passing down of trauma, criticisms of homogenous suburban culture. It’s layered and excellent and difficult. It is not a heartwarming book, but it is gripping and poetic. One of my new favorites for sure.