Everything I Never Told You Summary

Celeste Ng

Everything I Never Told You

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Everything I Never Told You Summary

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The novel is set in suburban Ohio, and takes place in the 1970s, with occasional flashbacks. The narrative focuses on the Lees, a middle-class Chinese-American family. The story immediately begins in the spring of 1977 with the reader learning that Lydia, the middle child, is dead. The family, however, does not know this. At this point in the narrative, Lydia is simply missing, but there is palpable tension at the breakfast table due to her absence. Lydia’s siblings, Nathan (Nath) and Hannah, discuss Lydia’s goings-on from the previous day. These comments, in addition to the unspoken tension from the parents, Marilyn and James, paint a picture that the family might not really know Lydia as much as they think they do.

By the end of the day, the Lees eventually learn that Lydia is in fact dead. She died from drowning, her body having been found in a nearby lake. This revelation brings on a slew of questions, especially as Lydia cannot swim. From this confusion, the reader is transported back to the 1960s, where the narrative focuses on Marilyn and James’ first meeting at Harvard. The reader learns of the parents’ early insecurities: James being Chinese-American and Marilyn’s fear of being a homemaker.

Back in the present, the family grieves at Lydia’s funeral. Nath accuses their neighbor, Jack, of being somehow involved in Lydia’s death. The boys almost fight, but James breaks them up. James later begins an affair with his teaching assistant, Louisa, who is also Chinese-American. Meanwhile, Marilyn vows to find out exactly what happened concerning Lydia’s death. As she searches her daughter’s room, though, she finds that she never really knew her.

The narrative then flashes back again, this time to Marilyn, and her feeling of restlessness after her mother’s death. Due to Marilyn’s restlessness, she decides she wants to continue with her studies, and so abandons her family to pursue her studies. James, after taking Nath to a community pool and watching him being bullied on account of his ethnicity, feels ashamed.

When the narrative switches back to the present, the family is bitterly divided. Hannah muses about her sister’s death, while James and Marilyn argue over whether Lydia’s death was a murder or suicide. The narrative again flashes back to when Marilyn disappeared, and the reader finds that, as Marilyn was pregnant with Hannah, she was forced to return home. Back home, she begins to plot Lydia’s studies out so that Lydia can become a doctor herself. In this way, the family begins orienting itself around Lydia and her future success.

Lydia is actually failing physics, and keeps this secret from her family. Adding to this, she discovers an acceptance letter to Harvard for Nath. When the family celebrates his accomplishment, Lydia finally tells them about failing physics, thus stealing the attention, to Nath’s annoyance. Lydia then begins a friendship with Jack, the neighbor whom Nath dislikes. It is revealed, however, that Hannah has discovered that Jack is actually in love with Nath.

Nath comes to suspect his father is having an affair. At the same time, Marilyn and James argue again about Lydia’s cause of death when they are informed that it is being ruled a suicide. It is during this fight that both parents reveal their frustrations with their marriage. James feels that Marilyn does not want the marriage, or never did. After the fight, James takes refuge at Louisa’s apartment. Nath tells his mother of his suspicions, and Marilyn actually tracks James down, but does nothing.

The narrative again flashes back to Jack and Lydia’s friendship. Jack is attempting to teach Lydia how to drive, though she eventually fails her driving test. Around this time, Lydia also suspects that her father is having an affair with Louisa. Back in the present, and after showing James’s attempt to leave his family only to return home, the narrative then returns to Lydia’s final days alive. It is revealed that Lydia feels Nath is not taking her feelings seriously. She also tries to engage in a romantic relationship with Jack, but Jack admits that he loves her brother instead. Lydia then takes a boat out onto the lake. Though she thinks she can swim to shore, she drowns.

At the end of the narrative, James and Marilyn finally make up, and Hannah also grows closer to her family. One day, Nath attempts to pick a fight with Jack out at the lake. Hannah stops the fight, but Nath falls into the lake. This act causes him to feel how Lydia must have felt right before drowning, and on seeing Hannah’s concern, he feels he has an anchor, and so swims ashore.

Themes of identity, racism, assimilation and acceptance run throughout the narrative, as well as issues concerning gender roles and the survival instinct. James has always been plagued with issues of assimilation and identity. Moreover, he sees these same issues play out when he witnesses Nath being bullied at the pool. For James, this is a failure on his part. He is not able to protect his son from the bullying he himself is insecure about, this highlighting a feeling of being trapped.

Marilyn’s flashback sequence also grounds the story in the historical context of 1960s gender roles. As an educated woman at Harvard, Marilyn does not want to fall victim to the prevailing role of women as housewives, like her mother. For Marilyn, then, the issue of assimilation is highlighted in gender roles. And yet Marilyn gets pregnant with Nath and ends up leaving her medical school dreams behind to start a family. This is initially viewed as a failure by Marilyn, and is a point of contention in her marriage for years to come.

Ultimately, the narrative is about survival. It starts with Lydia’s death, but shows how, through the act of surviving this death, her family is able to eventually learn how to live. Her parents mend the rift in their marriage. Her sister grows closer to her family and even protects Nath. When Nath falls into the lake, he finally sees life from Lydia’s perspective, and wants to survive for his family. In a symbolic gesture of moving forward, of survival, Nath swims to shore.