Everything I Never Told You is a reflection on how complicated families can be.
James and Marilyn Lee seemingly have the perfect life. He’s an American History professor at the local college. She’s a homemaker. They have three children – Nathan, Lydia, and Hannah. But, as the saying goes, all that glitters is not gold.
James is the American-born son of Chinese immigrants. His parents worked hard to give him every opportunity, but James still faced a lot of discrimination over the years. Because of these traumatic experiences, James’ singular goal in life is to blend in and be accepted. He projects this goal on his children – pushing Nathan and Lydia to be popular and well-liked.
Marilyn is beautiful, white, and brilliant. She was the only daughter of a Home Economics teacher and was determined to make something more of herself. Marilyn met James while she was in college, studying to be a doctor. She was ambitious and driven when it came to her goals, but had to change direction when she found herself pregnant. James and Marilyn get married, and she becomes trapped in the life of a stay-at-home Mom. Because of her lack of intellectual fulfillment, Marilyn pushes Lydia down the path of becoming a doctor.
Lydia, the clear favorite of both James and Lydia, carries a heavy burden. Both of her parents have pinned all of their hopes and dreams on her. James is constantly pushing her to make friends and be social, when it’s clear that this is not something she is comfortable with. Marilyn, on the other end of the spectrum, cajoles Lydia into taking advanced Science classes to get a leg up for medical school. Lydia struggles to keep up with the coursework, but Marilyn doesn’t seem to notice.
Nathan, the eldest, is close to Lydia. They both understand the struggles of being in the Lee family, and dealing with their parents. But, Nathan is also resentful of the attention Lydia always gets from their parents. Nathan is smart and does well in school, but for the most part, his parents don’t notice. He has a difficult relationship with James, who sees much of his younger, pushed-around, self in Nathan.
Hannah, the youngest, is universally forgotten by all family members. Her conception was an accident, and it seems like she’s been an afterthought ever since. For being only ten years old, however, Hannah is very observent and notices more about what’s been going on with Lydia than anyone else.
The relationships of these five family members, described leading up to, during, and after Lydia’s disappearance is what makes Everything I Never Told You such a haunting read. Slowly, page by page, Ng unveils little bits of information that fit together like puzzle pieces to show the bigger picture of what’s happened to Lydia. She shows how wounds from James and Marilyn’s childhood, left to fester for years, eventually caused cracks in their family’s foundation. The underlying issues of race, depression, and loneliness are painted on every page. The inherent flaws of the characters makes you dislike them, and then empathize with them in the same breath. It is a beautiful book that serves to remind us that no person or family is perfect. I would definitely recommend it, and think it would especially make a great Book Club read.