Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.
So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos.
A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another. – Goodreads
Oh hey, guys. Remember me? I read books sometimes and then review them here? Should I reintroduce myself? Hi, I’m Tina and I’m a bad book blogger. (Hi, Tina.)
I’m not sure what made me pick up the book. The summary was intriguing. Death, secrets, a family that doesn’t talk. Unreliable narrators abound. And it sucked me right in. I read half of it in a day. This is the story of the Lee family, and I do mean the entire family, as the narrative will weave in an out of different viewpoints while remaining in the third person POV. Lydia is dead at the beginning of the book, and we very slowly start learning the history of this family and being discovering all their secrets. It’s the 1970s, and women are newly liberated, so to speak, becoming doctors and scientists, but Marilyn Lee is a housewife. It’s a life she never saw for herself, and she struggles, but she makes do by pouring all her effort into showing Lydia she can have a different kind of life. Marilyn does this at the expense of her other children, especially Hannah. James Lee is the son of immigrants, and while he’s young all he wants is to fit in, but when he’s older, he seems to seek out similarity. There aren’t too many Asians in small-town Ohio in the 70s, and people frequently refer to James and his children as “Oriental” or “the Orientals.” Racism abounds in this novel, and even Marilyn had a pretty gross reaction when she first met James. (Oh, a Chinaman. He doesn’t speak like I thought he would. “So solly.” It was awful.) Marilyn’s mother disowns her for marrying James. James’ parents are dead. And these two are not great parents themselves. Pouring everything into one child at the detriment of the others. Hannah’s point of view is particularly sad, like when she goes to reach for her mother’s hand and Marilyn pulls it back, or when Hannah tentatively lays her head on Nath’s shoulder, because whenever she tries to get close, they move away. James is hard to like when thinking about his son, who, at seven years old, is obsessed with space and rockets. James can’t help but be annoyed by this, even hitting him once for it, and makes backhanded comments all the time. These people are kind of awful. They’re hard to like, but easy to empathize with, if you feel you can get past their selfishness.
Lydia is dead and the family is unraveling. James is locking himself in his office at the university, Marilyn is convinced that someone kidnapped Lydia and killed her, Nath is angry, Hannah is silent. They are all coming to terms with Lydia’s death, and they are all realizing that they did not really know her.
This book is about love, suffocating as it might be, loss, loneliness, and anger. Everyone is so angry, and everyone just tamps it down. They don’t ever talk about anything. They keep everything to themselves until it boils over and they self-destruct. More than Lydia’s death, this is a book about discovery. Every character goes through a major character revamp throughout the course of the novel, and I love how Ng gives us little glimpses into the future. This is a great one.
- The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
Release Date: January 13, 2015
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Buy It: Amazon | IndieBound
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel offers what she knows to the police, and becomes inextricably entwined in what happens next, as well as in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good? – Goodreads
This is going to be one of those books that’s hard to review, because it’s suspenseful, a mystery, the plot is twisty and the timeline shifty. It’s hard to know what details to give away and what to keep secret, what minor event will become a catalyst for something bigger, whether sharing it will ruin the surprise. So we’ll start with the basics. Rachel is a thirty-something divorcee, an alcoholic with an overactive imagination who has been divorced and living in a university friend’s spare bedroom for two years. She rides the commuter train from Ashbury to London everyday, and she watches Number Fifteen, the home of Jason and Jess, which coincidentally is also only a few doors down from the house Rachel shared with her ex-husband, Tom. Rachel makes up elaborate stories about Jason and Jess and avoids looking at her old home, where Tom is still living with his new wife, Anna, and their baby. Details unfold about Rachel’s new life and the one she lost that make you feel sorry for her, feel she’s been dealt a bad hand, but she is also strange, sort of creepy with her imagination, with her obsession with strangers and her own past.
And then there is Megan, whose name is not Jess, who does not come close to living up to the image Rachel has built up in her head. Megan, who is married to Scott, not Jason, who has panic attacks and extramarital affairs, who has no direction and a selfish heart. We jump back and forth in time with these two. Megan is in the fall of 2012 and Rachel is in the summer of 2013, and I think these jumps are complementary. When I was first beginning the book, I believed we were seeing the aftermath of Rachel’s downfall and the buildup to Megan’s. This book has been compared to Gone Girl, which makes me wary, not of the comparison, but of the twisty nature of that book. I spent a lot of time trying not to be fooled, trying to pick out clues from the prose. Because, at some point in Rachel’s timeline, Megan goes missing.
So, first, this book is like Gone Girl in that all the characters are pretty terrible humans, though at least in this novel, they have some redeeming qualities. I had a feeling from the very beginning that not a single one of the many narrators was reliable, which usually means they’re all lying as they tell the story, or covering up, or being misleading. Nova Ren Suma does a great unreliable narrator, and so does Hawkins. I am the first to admit that I’m not always very good at figuring the mystery out early on, especially not in books, so I am not one of the people who figured out very early on. At around the halfway mark, I looked back and wondered who it could be, if I had missed something, but I still had no idea. Mostly I found myself worried about the baby, the way one worries about the dog in any film, wondering if the dog will make it to the end of the movie. It wasn’t until I was almost three-quarters of the way through the book that I started having suspicions. And the last 10% or so of the book was very stressful to read, because even though everyone was horrible and I didn’t exactly like them, I was worried about our narrators.
Hawkins does a great job at keeping you in suspense while also keeping the story moving at a good pace. I think the book is good because all the characters are reprehensible and yet you can’t look away, you have to know what happened to Megan, what happened to Rachel, what happened to Anna. The story jumps back and forth in time, but it unfolds and reveals quickly. I liked this story because it kept me on the edge of my seat, kept me interested. I was unable to stop reading. That is always the mark of a good book to me.
And finally, a quote from the beginning of the book that I really liked:
- “Life is not a paragraph and death is no parentheses.”
The death of Judd Foxman’s father marks the first time that the entire Foxman family—including Judd’s mother, brothers, and sister—have been together in years. Conspicuously absent: Judd’s wife, Jen, whose fourteen-month affair with Judd’s radio-shock-jock boss has recently become painfully public.
Simultaneously mourning the death of his father and the demise of his marriage, Judd joins the rest of the Foxmans as they reluctantly submit to their patriarch’s dying request: to spend the seven days following the funeral together. In the same house. Like a family.
As the week quickly spins out of control, longstanding grudges resurface, secrets are revealed, and old passions reawakened. For Judd, it’s a weeklong attempt to make sense of the mess his life has become while trying in vain not to get sucked into the regressive battles of his madly dysfunctional family. All of which would be hard enough without the bomb Jen dropped the day Judd’s father died: She’s pregnant. – Goodreads
This is a rare instance in my life where I saw the movie before the book. I couldn’t pass up a Jason Bateman/Adam Driver collaboration, plus Tina Fey was sort of the icing on the cake. My mom heard I’d seen the movie, and, having read the book in our family book club, recommended it pretty highly to me. She doesn’t recommend many books to me, because she knows I tend toward the supernatural and the YA, and she definitely does not, but she recommended Gone Girl to me a few years ago and I loved that book, so I listened. And from the very start, this book had me hooked. It’s hard to hook me these days, which I think is the result of a variety of factors, not least of which is having a very active nine month old who doesn’t let me sit still or take my eyes off of him for more than 15 seconds. Makes book reading hard. I think I’m also in a place in my life where reading about the adventures of teenagers makes me feel disconnected and vaguely jealous, because my life is so far from that right now, and it’s a life stage I’ll never make it back to. So, adult contemporary fiction it is.
As the summary says, this is a story about Judd Foxman and his sad, but hilarious misadventures navigating this horror story we call life. His father has recently passed away from cancer, and his wife is newly pregnant by way of an affair with Judd’s boss. So the story is told from Judd’s point of view, but we get insights into the lives of his family as well. There’s Paul, whose dream of playing college baseball was crushed by a Rottweiler to the arm, who is married to Alice, a woman struggling with infertility who also happened to be the first girl Judd ever slept with. Wendy is the oldest, a stay-at-home mom to three unruly children based in LA, married to Barry, a douchey finance guy with an ever-present Bluetooth earpiece. Phillip is the youngest and possibly the most screwed up, being 9 years younger than Judd and the one babied through life. He is also a playboy and currently dating his former therapist, a woman 15 or so years his senior. The Foxman mother, Hillary, is a psychologist, and true to the theme of children growing up with parents involved in psychology, seems to have given her children more complexes than the average mother. We know little about the Foxmans’ deceased father except through stories told by the kids and through Judd’s somewhat warped memories. Judd’s father, an atheist by belief but a Jew by birth, has requested that his children sit shiva when he dies.
This book isn’t overburdened by dialogue, and it has just lovely, down-to-earth, yet flowing prose that is so very readable and draws you right in. Judd and his family are easy to relate to in that the dysfunction seems so familiar. Tropper’s portrayal of marriage, or any long-term, live-in relationship, really, is very accurate and, again, very relatable. We follow Judd, and through him, the Foxman siblings, through the stages of grief, through their neuroses and insecurities, and we get to watch them either stay the same or be reborn. That makes it sound haughty, but it’s all very human.
The hardest part for me to read was when Judd details the third trimester pregnancy loss he and Jen experienced. The baby, a boy, died after his cord wrapped around his neck, and let me tell you, almost every pregnant woman I’ve ever met has this fear. I had it. Is the baby moving enough? Why haven’t I felt the baby yet? As someone who had a completely uncomplicated pregnancy and delivered a healthy boy, the explanations and details of this part of Judd’s life just broke my heart. Judd sees and recognizes this moment as the beginning of the end of his marriage, a pivotal moment in his life that set him off on another course. So, just know that there will be details, and moments spent in an exam room, and if this kind of thing is triggering for you, just skip chapter 21 entirely.
The only thing that truly bothered me about this book was how Tropper used his skill with description to really go to town on women’s bodies, especially the older ones. Men were usually passed by with descriptors like “bald” or “rail-thin,” but women had their varicose veins and double chins described in painful detail. At one point, he refers to a group of them as “melting ice cream bars.” I just felt that in a story about family and the disillusionment life can bring, it was all so very unnecessary. Women’s bodies are the focus of so many articles and criticisms, and while I assume Tropper is describing the mind of a random thirty-something male very accurately, I wish it hadn’t been deemed necessary at all. Aging is something that happens to all of us, and men are given more of a pass than women for something we humans can’t avoid, and whether someone is seen as aging gracefully or not is their own business. What is done to your body, or isn’t, is up to you, and no one else really deserves an opinion. There is a point in this book where Judd ruminates on the fact that our thoughts are frequently selfish and unkind, and that if someone else were to hear them, they’d know we’re all just assholes in our heads, and to a point, I think that’s true. But it’s something of a pattern in this book, and it stood out to me in a way that seemed unneeded. The other thing that I noticed, but that didn’t bother me quite so much since it seems so prevalent, was that Judd is basically a Nice Guy. He’s only friends with Penny because he thinks she’s beautiful and he likes her, and he gets all upset when he sees her dating guys Judd deems unworthy of her. It’s okay to be just friends with a woman, Judd. Nothing wrong with being her shoulder to cry on while not also simultaneously wanting to get into her pants.
I liked this one a lot. So much. Such a quick and easy read, such an interesting journey to follow, such a great cast of characters. I recommend this one highly.
Finally, some quotes that I just loved:
- “marrying [my mother] was like joining the chorus”
- “[my father was] a lifelong member of the Church of Shit or Get Off the Can”
- “you get married to have an ally against your family”
- “at some point you lose sight of your actual parents; you just see a basketful of history and unresolved issues”
- “You never know when it will be the last time you’ll see your father, or kiss your wife, or play with your little brother, but there’s always a last time. If you could remember every last time, you’d never stop grieving.”