Nicole Chung’s memoir, “All You Can Ever Know,” follows her struggles feeling like she didn’t fit in as Korean child adopted by a white couple. This transracial adoption has always affected Nikki, especially as an Asian girl growing up in a primarily white neighborhood. The story follows her internal conflicts about her adoptive family, her biological family, and her own decisions to create a family. Chung writes an emotional memoir that addresses more than just her personal story. “All You Can Ever Know” is a beautifully written book that addresses problems of race and family, drawing the reader in an emotional roller coaster that leaves them wanting to know more.
The most distinguishing aspect of the book is the structure. While most memoirs delve into one’s personal struggles and their own journey, Chung also narrates through the lens of her biological sister, Cindy. This new perspective provides the book with two different, gut-wrenching stories until the sisters eventually cross paths. Cindy is completely blindsided by the sudden appearance of Nikki, her younger sister who she believed had died in the hospital at birth. By focusing on how Cindy felt at the time, rather than her own thoughts, Chung provides further insights to what her life may have been like had she been raised by her birth parents. When Cindy discovers the truth, “she felt confused, disappointed, she was also resigned. All her life, it had been drilled into her not to talk back, not to get upset, not to question her family.” Chung’s view, expressed through her understanding tone, connects all of the characters and successfully mirrors the way that Chung felt: lost and confused. More importantly, her brilliant use of narratives from different perspectives deepens Chung’s own discovery of what family really means.
Chung’s thoughts are cleverly woven into her narratives, sharing with the reader her most vulnerable moments. Her honest insight into the life she was born into creates a vivid and dynamic picture for the reader and provides suspense in heightened moments of tension. Her blunt questioning, judgments, and second-guessing during moments of stress and discomfort are universal. For example, while addressing the racial issues she faced as a Korean woman growing up with white parents, Chung ponders that “to be a hero, [she] thought, you had to be beautiful and adored. To be beautiful and adored, you had to be white.” The way she opens herself up to the world when so many secrets were kept from her creates an alluring emotional attachment between the reader and the author. Her long train of thought is gripping.
Unfortunately, sometimes the alternating points of view can become confusing and muddled, interrupting the flow of the memoir. As the book progresses and Cindy’s and Nikki’s stories overlap, it becomes difficult to distinguish who is narrating the story. However, the overall effect of hearing multiple perspectives outweighs this small downside. The occasional colloquialism also interrupts the serious tone. With words and phrases like “crunchy” and “height of cool” used during moments that are both emotional and serious, Chung creates an odd and awkward contrast, rather than lightening the mood as what was most likely intended.
Overall, this heartbreaking yet bittersweet story draws the readers in through Chung’s exploration of her own thoughts and the consequences of her decisions. Chung proves that she is not a product of an environment she can’t control, but rather a human being in control of her own life.
Correction: Oct. 14, 2018
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the memoir "All You Can Ever Know" as a novel. It has been updated.
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