Celeste Ng – Everything I Never Told You

***Spoiler Alerts where marked***

I have learnt that in life great coming of age stories are powerful. It wrings a childhood and uproots beliefs, leaving the teen in bewildering territories.

The assumptions being that firstly, everyone comes of age, and secondly, it happens in their teens.There is a third assumption that is not so obvious, that everyone comes of age only once.

Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You is a coming of age story of many iterations.

Towards the end, Ng tries to neatly knot the pandora’s box, but the knot is not tight enough.

Coming of Age

I have come of age many times episodically. Sometimes painfully, oftentimes gleefully, but almost always falsely.

Ever since it has been a peeling off and undoing of hard-wired habits and notions that have occupied my time and cost me the most. From basic facts in life, like one can ask for extra sambhar in hotels (I went through the first 18 something years of life not sure of this fact) to far deeper psychological biases that I am scrambling to unravel as I come to have meaningful conversations and experiences with people I’ve come to respect.

Coming of age stories trace the conflicts and a shift in perspective, a deep dawning realization that, a till then baffling and contentious dilemma can be handled multiple ways. It leaves one with unnecessarily lasting impressions.

People who’ve come of age at somepoint in their live on some matters go

  • I have learnt that in life….,
  • My theory is that…
  • One day you will realize…
  • It was then that I…

Transactional biases, like in the sambhar example, are easy to correct. It is discrete in its occurrence and participants. If I fail to ask for extra sambhar and later on come to know that the unwritten policy was that of unlimited sambhar, I don’t have to hold the grudge forever. I can even correct it fairly easily the next time I go there, because the relationship with the waiter starts anew, unless, of course, the waiter is a photographic memoried paranoid piece of human work who is one request for extra sambhar away from snapping into insanity.

You get my drift.

Things’ll even out, and life will go on.

But with close friends or parents or relations, biases tend to play out drastically skewing life views and affecting irreversible decisions and behavioral and social traits in individuals.

***Spoiler Alerts start***

The Lee family in Ng’s work is festering in unspoken feelings. Unreciprocated love, stifling marital expectations, inadvertently oppressive parental expectations, stilted conversations and broken relations are the norms. The father finds comfort between the arms and legs of his teaching assistant, the mother is a walking broken dream, the elder son is an academic overcompensator yet to discover his sexuality, the elder daughter an increasingly depressed, lonely, and self-burdened teen, and the youngest child is left to fend alone emotionally.

***Spoiler Alerts end***

Many of the literary criticism of the book states that the characters are uni-dimensional. They are too caught up in their own sorrows and dreams that they fail to recognize obvious signs of familial disrepair which could easily have been corrected.

Real life, however, has a far crueler sense of irony.

With an MFA from Boston, Ng’s words don’t falter. What she wants to say, she says. It is everything she has still not said that is scary.

It is certainly not for lack of language that she stops and reins in her punches.

Maybe, Celeste knows how to swim.

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