“Later–when things happened that they could never have imagined–she wrote him a letter that said: When will you learn that there isn’t a word for everything?”
Nicole Krauss, The History of Love
When I first contemplated this post, I wanted to call it “a theory of everything,” then remembered that I am no physicist, nor have I seen that movie starring Eddie Redmayne– even though “starring Eddie Redmayne” is one of the only things that will entice me to see a movie in theaters. (Is The Danish Girl on Netflix yet? Will investigate.)
But as much as I love talking/thinking/daydreaming about Eddie Redmayne, he has absolutely nothing to do with this post.
Instead, I want to talk about Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You. I read both novels, which had been on my list for quite some time, in quick succession. I’m a sucker for titles that contain “everything.” Slap an “everything” on either end of a title, and it’s on my “want to read” list.
There are many other examples of books with “everything” in the title. Everything Is Illuminated; Everything, Everything; Glory over Everything; The Beginning of Everything. Thanks to my recent reads, I was looking for a pattern, and one seemed to fit, if not exactly, then well enough. A disproportionate amount of these titles featured young protagonists (two of these six titles are young adult, but there are more young adult titles with “everything” in them, which I think is related to this).
The End of Everything and Everything I Never Told You, though, are not young adult fiction; they are adult literary fiction, both with a crime or mystery element. Megan Abbott is the writer’s writer of noir/crime fiction; Everything I Never Told You unravels the mysterious death of a family’s golden child.
The End of Everything is narrated by thirteen-year-old Lizzie, who has started to grow apart from her childhood best friend, Evie. They do so in the clumsy, tentative way that I think all teenagers do, one friend holding on too tightly to the other. Lizzie loves Evie’s family– her warm father; her sister Dusty, the beautiful apple of their father’s eye– and she feels something like one of them. But then Evie goes missing, the only clue a car, and Lizzie finds herself combing through Evie’s life, looking for clues and unable to fit the pieces– those she finds and those she thought she knew about Evie– together.
Megan Abbott is a master at depicting the inner lives of teenage girls. And, more remarkably, she does so in the adult fiction realm. Not all of her books are narrated by teenagers, and there is a certain element of looking back to The End of Everything that frames the narrative in an adult way, but she mines that territory in a way that feels fresh. She also does atmosphere extremely well, a feeling that something is not quite right below the surface, but you can’t put your finger on what. My rule with great suspense is that I should never definitively know the perpetrator until the end. I love books that keep me on my toes, that make me doubt my instincts to the point of frustration.
Everything I Never Told You begins with one of my favorite first lines in recent memory. “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” it reads. The novel follows the Lee family. They are Chinese-American– a Chinese father and a white mother with three children. Sixteen-year-old Lydia, the middle and favorite child, drowns in the lake nearby as her control on her life began to crumble. The parents have their own secrets, their own wounds that haven’t quite healed. Her brother Nath is heading off to college, having drifted apart from Lydia recently; Hannah, the youngest child, observes, knowing that she will always be second to Lydia.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the book, because that’s part of the fun of reading it, seeing how one choice influences another, how they come back to haunt when the characters believe they’ve moved on. The novel is heartbreaking and surprising and beautiful. I have been shoving it into the hands of everyone I know recently. Read this, I urge. It’s the last thing that blew me away. I had wanted to read it for ages, ever since Amazon named it the best book of 2014, which is what helped propel the book onto bestseller lists.
In both of these books, “everything” is uniquely an adolescent’s territory. It is a life laid before them like a treasure map, a “you are here” marking their location, wondering how to get from that point to the “X.” At some point, that seems like too much. “Everything” means a kind of longing to have all your desires all at once, that fear that they will slip away. “Everything” is a life before we’ve made all our choices, when three or five or twelve paths present themselves to us, and we have to choose one. Our lives both narrow and broaden as we get older. The choices we make force a narrower world; you major in something in college, you get a job in your field, which leads to another job, that makes switching careers that much more difficult. But our lives broaden in the sense that we get to make those decisions; in an ideal world, no one forces our hand.
Adolescence is the time when you can still believe in the possibility of having everything. It’s the time of wanting everything without knowing how to obtain it. To my ear, everything is the language of longing.
If you do pick one or both of these books up, please let me know below!