Review: All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

Title: All You Can Ever Know
Author: Nicole Chung
Rating: ★★★★
Summary: After being born severely premature, Nicole Chung was placed up for adoption by her birth parents and raised by a white family in a sheltered Oregon town, her adoption a comforting story of familial sacrifice and God’s will. But as she grew up—facing prejudice her adoptive family couldn’t see, finding her identity as an Asian American and as a writer, becoming ever more curious about where she came from—Chung wondered if the comforting adoption story she’d been told all her life was the whole truth. With warmth, candor, and startling insight, All You Can Ever Know is a profound, moving chronicle of surprising connections and the repercussions of unearthing painful family secrets.


When I was young, my family’s view of adoption as identity trump card—more powerful than blood, or appearance, or the bigotry I encountered—made it nearly impossible to imagine, let alone talk about, a future reunion with my birth family. I always understood that my parents didn’t want me to search. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say I understood that they didn’t want me to want to search. I was enough for them, and they wanted to be enough for me.

All You Can Ever Know is one of those books you see and think “why?” Why does this person think that their story is worth telling? And why should I care? Nicole Chung was not a name with which I was familiar before reading her debut memoir, but I’m happy to have stumbled onto her work. Her book is a beautifully written exploration of life as a Korean-American adoptee; as an only-child discovering her past, a young woman her future, and a soon-to-be mother her place.

Chung splits the book into four loose parts—childhood, pregnancy, post-partum, and after—but each weaves around and through the others, connecting in multiple spots and inching the story back toward itself. What Chung learns about her birth family answers as many questions as it poses, the information confirming and validating her adolescent self-doubt as much as it creates more “what ifs?” over which she obsesses.

Chung cannot speak to everyone who’s ever been adopted (nor should she), but her doubts and fears and emotional yearning are universal. Who hasn’t felt out of place among their peers? Hasn’t wished for a different family or a different life? There are no easy answers in this book, but I enjoyed the malleability of it all, the idea that even Chung herself didn’t write this to really solve anything. She may have started on a journey to find her birth parents, but that’s not where the book stops. All You Can Ever Know is a meditation on identity, on family, and on self. It’s powerful, vulnerable, and sad, but also funny and warm, too.

In the very last line of the book, Chung says, “Let’s start at the beginning.” Although it’s meant literally, I know the meaning is two-fold. Because endings always lead to other beginnings, and each new beginning always makes its way to an eventual end.