In a family so full of secrets that it’s a wonder members aren’t choking on them, it’s really no surprise that when the eldest daughter, Lydia, goes missing, no one can fathom how or why. I was absolutely blown away by how well Celeste Ng dug into the insecurities of each family member and how it affected how they interacted with each other and the outside world. By the time I finished Everything I Never Told You, it felt like the layers had just been peeled off of the inauthentic lives the whole family had been living. Wow!
When Marilyn went off to Radcliffe in the 1950s, it was with the intention of becoming a doctor. Unlike her mother who was a home economics teacher and believed that keeping house was the most suitable job for women, Marilyn was determined to follow her passion. As fate would have it, she fell into the life that her mother predicted for her. Though she goes through an unhappy and frustrated period, outwardly she appears to be content with her life.
To his students, James is an anomaly at Harvard, an Asian-American professor teaching American history, specifically about cowboys. While the other students question how this is so, Marilyn is intrigued by the shy professor. James has never felt like he belonged anywhere; not in his small private school in Iowa as the only Chinese student and certainly not as an adult at Harvard. From the beginning, being with the white, blond Marilyn is like an acceptance letter to American normalcy.
Nath and Lydia both struggle with acceptance at school in the late 1970s. Nath makes good grades and can’t wait to escape their small Ohio town for Harvard. While he appears to be the most well-adjusted of his family, he carries just as many secrets. His biggest one won't be revealed to readers until almost the end of the book. At home, so much of the focus is on Lydia that neither parent really notices Nath. It’s interesting to watch Lydia complain about how much attention is paid to everything she does, but when the focus is re-directed to Nath, she always manages to swing it back her way. It’s true that her parents are much more invested in her than their other children. Hannah, the youngest child, is almost invisible to her parents and her siblings. I feel sorry for her the most because while the others are grieving the loss of Lydia, no one even thinks to check on Hannah, who likely misses her sister the most.
I have so many questions for James, like, if you know that you had a hard time being the only Asian student in school, why would you put your children in a situation where they’re the only Asian students? To be fair, I know that he felt Marilyn’s white side “normalized” the kids, but it didn’t. The kids are left dealing with the ridicule from others while, at the same time, hiding it from their parents because they know how desperately their father wants them to fit in. Lydia catches a double dose of parental guilt. James is overly invested in making sure she has friends, proving that she has been accepted; Marilyn crams her head with math and science, forcing her to shun the few potential friendships she’s been offered, instead spending her evenings and weekends studying and trying to live up to her mother’s expectations.
Hannah sees all of this. She sees Lydia sinking deeper and deeper into despair. She knows about her secret rendezvous with a neighbor. She knows that Lydia is afraid that once Nath leaves, she won’t have anyone to turn to, she won’t have anyone that can relate to what she’s going through at school and at home. I can’t help but to think that all problems could have been solved if only someone had asked Hannah earlier. Everything I Never Told You definitely proves that secrets will eat you alive.
Published: June 2014
Disclaimer: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.