Everything I Never Told You is a novel about thwarted dreams, love, and parental expectations; about race in America in the 1970s, women’s rights, the desire to fit in and the desire to stand out. And the mysterious death of 16-year-old Lydia Lee. Was it suicide or foul play?
The story begins with Lydia’s death. Her body has been found in the lake, and since it is known she couldn’t swim, foul play is assumed. Our initial image of Lydia is as a genius with lots of friends. Ng reveals the truth about Lydia, her parents and her family through flashbacks and in real time. We learn that her white mother Marilyn was the beautiful blond daughter of single mom who worked as a home ec teacher at Marilyn’s high school. Marilyn wanted to be a doctor and got in to Radcliffe. Her mother was thrilled at the prospect of her daughter marrying a Harvard man, but this didn’t quite turn out as she dreamed.
James Lee was a Harvard history graduate student finishing his PhD and hoping to land a job on the Harvard faculty. James’ parents were Chinese immigrants who worked as custodians and cooks at a private school in the Midwest. James was smart enough to earn a scholarship there and then attend Harvard but he had no friends, never blended in. When Marilyn took James’ course on cowboys, it was love at first sight. Marilyn loved James because he knew what it was like to be different, and James loved Marilyn her because she blended in, she “belonged”.
This tension between difference and belonging runs throughout the story. For the Lee kids, growing up in a 1970s Ohio college town, blending in and making friends has been difficult. Nath, a high school senior, is very smart and dreams of studying astrophysics, but his achievements seem not to penetrate his parents’ consciousness. Hannah, who is about 11, is also essentially ignored by her parents and her older siblings, but she is very observant and has figured out things about her family that they don’t seem to realize themselves. James and Marilyn focus their attentions on Lydia. With her mother’s blue eyes and good looks, she has the best chance to become popular and accepted by their community. Dad emphasizes fitting in, while mom, having not come to terms with her frustrated ambitions of medical school, pushes Lydia to take advanced math and science courses.
The tension builds as Ng reveals the complications in the family dynamic, the untold truths about her characters ,and the relationship between their neighbor Jack and Lydia. I found this to be an engrossing story and perhaps a good choice for young adults, although it is not technically YA.