Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Penguin Books. 2015.
“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” So begins this exquisite novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, and her parents are determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia’s body is found in the local lake, the delicate balancing act that has been keeping the Lee family together is destroyed, tumbling them into chaos. A profoundly moving story of family, secrets, and longing, Everything I Never Told You is both a gripping page-turner and a sensitive family portrait, uncovering the ways in which mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, and husbands and wives struggle, all their lives, to understand one another.
Why Everything I Never Told You Matters
In my mind, this is the perfect type of novel to introduce to high schoolers. It’s quite readable and the mystery of Lydia’s death, while devastating, also keeps readers turning pages. I always find that students really enjoy the opportunity to read and discuss texts that feature teenage characters. It doesn’t seem to matter whether these books are intended for a young adult or adult audience, it’s the character connection that matters most. Ng writes very realistic, relatable, and nuanced teenage characters. From a teacher’s perspective, I love the way she describes social and academic anxiety, the conflicting desires teenagers feel to both please their parents and assert their independence, and all the deep feelings rolling around under the surface of the faces we see in class every day. At the same time, Ng illustrates the complicated interior lives of Lydia’s parents, Marilyn and James Lee, and how parental intentions can be totally out of line from what their children feel. These themes could encourage wonderful classroom discussion, individual reflection, and perhaps even personal narratives inspired by the text.
Additionally, Everything I Never Told You presents a story that will be simultaneously relatable to nearly every high school student, yet singular in its focus on a biracial Chinese-American family. The Lee children experience a feeling of otherness that comes from being the only students of color at their school. The way Ng depicts their story provides teenage readers with the chance to relate to the feeling of being an outsider, but also allows them to enter discussions about the way race impacts social systems in their own communities. In other words, this text makes the political personal, and will be both a “window” and a “mirror” text for many students.
The hardest part of teaching this book is also the driving force of the novel: the question of how Lydia died. There are suspicions that Lydia was killed by a boyfriend and that she committed suicide. It is clear throughout that Lydia was depressed and suffered from severe anxiety and perfectionism. While these issues are certainly difficult, they are also very real topics that students ought to be discussing in brave spaces where they can explore their own emotions and challenge their perceptions. Depending on the grade level, I would recommend providing parents with information on the issues brought up in the text and encourage them to ask their students about their experiences reading the text throughout the unit.
It’s only fair to also acknowledge that some readers feel frustrated by this book because so many of the issues would be solved if the characters just talked to each other. But I find this to be a very realistic problem and a valuable lesson about the importance of advocating for oneself and empathizing with others, even when you’re not quite sure what’s motivating their behavior. Ultimately, this book is well worth the emotional effort required as students will feel both seen and challenged by this text, and it will allow for deep conversations about both literary and social topics.
Themes and Social Issues: Family, outsiderness, assimilation, biracial identities, depression, pressure & anxiety in teens, secrets, friendship, relationships, motherhood.
Literary Features: Ng uses masterful pacing through Everything I Never Told You to reveal plot and character development to readers at the perfect time. Ng convinces readers they know a character through external perspectives, but reveals a nuanced additional side to them through internal perspectives. Characters act on nuanced motivations and have rich interior lives.
Content Awareness: The question of whether Lydia committed suicide runs throughout the novel and would require a lot of scaffolding and support for students. While the novel ends tragically, Ng is able to imbue her conclusion with a sense of hope. Late in the novel, there is one brief yet graphic sex scene between an older man and a woman in her mid-twenties. This scene is not gratuitous and is essential both for character development and the way Ng develops the idea of grief. Teenage characters have sexual and romantic longings that motivate their behavior, although we don’t see them acted upon within the text.
Grade Level Recommendation: 10th-12th.
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