Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng
Spoiler Alert: Lydia died trying to swim across the lake.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng delves into the family dynamics in the 1970s that affected the death of a Chinese-Caucasian teenager. Lydia—the daughter of Marilyn and James—experiences expectations from her family as the quintessential “golden child”.
Marilyn, a white woman, aspires to be a doctor in a male-dominated field. Her mother was a housewife and she swore to herself that she would never fill that role; unfortunately, after meeting James in college when he was her professor, she found herself married and pregnant, with no way to fulfill her dreams. With the birth of her daughter, she finds an outlet from which to live through vicariously.
James, a Chinese man, has gone his entire life without fitting in. In school, he was laughed at and excluded. He didn’t want the same for his children. He placed pressure on Lydia and Nath (their eldest child) into being social and “cool”. Soon, Nath disappointed these expectations but from James’s view, Lydia had a booming social life—this was untrue.
With the pressure to be perfect being placed on her, Lydia began to slip, especially as the time for Nath to be sent to college began to draw closer—her only confidant would be leaving and she’d be left without anyone. Eventually, Lydia reaches a point where she wants to work through her life, she’s befriended Jack (their neighbor and classmate) and finds that she doesn’t know what she wants—that she’s been living for her parents.
Despite not knowing how to swim, Lydia rows to the center of the lake prepared to return to shore without being afraid. Unfortunately, as learned in the beginning of the book, she had failed.
Her death places many miscommunications on the family as a whole. Her parents each mourned separately and eventually this led James into the arms of Louisa—a Chinese woman. He believes that in some ways, it’s his fault that Lydia had committed suicide (as the case had been ruled by the police) for her being half Chinese.
Marilyn learns of the affair, forcing James to leave. Marilyn has a revelation regarding Lydia and breaks down with her youngest daughter, Hannah—the forgotten child—being able to comfort her. Hannah finally gets the love she deserves as her father returns and they play together.
Everything I Never Told You was intriguing and holds your attention from the first page as you attempt to understand the many events that led to Lydia’s death. In the end, the true meaning of her death would remain unknown to her family but despite that they have became healthier and happier.
This book has followed me through years of my life. The first time I’d read Everything I Never Told You I was nine years old, the character I related to most at the time was Hannah. She was around the same age as I was and I could understand her thoughts and feelings, even if I didn’t relate to her situation. It was years later before I read it again (however, I never forgot the book) and I found that I understood Lydia completely.
Lydia and I are now about the same age and her struggles are ones that I deal with, as well. The desire to do well in school and make friends is one that most teenagers know well, paired with perfectionism it can be challenging.
These struggles effect people differently, for Lydia, it has been questioned whether her death was truly a suicide or not. It is my belief that Lydia didn’t intentionally mean to drown in the lake; her intentions for attempting to swim—despite not knowing how—was symbolic of her desire to break free of the restraints in her life. In the book, an important moment is when Nathan pulls Lydia from the lake when they were younger after he pushes her in; she would reflect on this memory throughout her life as the moment when she began to rely on others and Nath became responsible for her—sometimes at his own expense. To prove to herself that she could start over, she rowed to the center of the lake and attempted to swim back.
Overall, Everything I Never Told You is a moving story about a family who has never learned how to properly communicate. This book allows us to see how people can change when they are forced to reflect on their past; it teaches the reader to be more open with the people who surround them, because you never truly know what’s going on in everyone’s head.
The author, Celeste Ng, executed many aspects of this book perfectly. From the racial perspectives to the family dynamics—the voices and narration of her characters each were identifiable in their differences. However, the pacing would sometimes drag as the story flowed—it could become hard to tell what had or had not happened as the multitude of flashbacks took place. It is because of these somewhat confusing portions of the book that I gave this book three out of five stars.
If you enjoyed this book, I would suggest checking out In Five Years by Rebecca Serle, an adult book about a woman working through the emotions that come with different forms of love. I would also suggest Without Merit by Colleen Hoover, a young adult novel about a depressed teenager dealing with her complicated family.