Book Cover
Everything I Never Told You


★ ★ ★

TL;DR: Lydia Lee, a 16 year old in Middletown, commits suicide. Her family grapples with how this could have happened. It turns out everyone, including Lydia, has their own internal demons that don’t come out until it’s too late. Then they are left to figure out how they can be better in the future.

Response

Extremely relatable as a Chinese-American myself. Execution was just missing a little bit of something though. Paints a vivid picture of how death, and especially suicide, affects everyone who was close to the deceased. Shows how it can tear people apart, but also slightly optimistically how it can help people improve on their own flaws. Wish I could have been slightly more invested in the characters, but don’t have a concrete suggestion for how that could have happened – maybe not as many time jumps? Mabye a little more “show, don’t tell” w.r.t. their emotions?

  • Next time: Ankify responses? Feelings? idk

Plot

  • Takes place in 1977 in suburban Ohio
  • Lydia Lee is dead. At first, they think she just ran away, but she’s found in the lake a few days after going missing
  • Jumps back to 1955. Marilyn and James (Lydia’s parents) meet at Harvard where she is a student at the women’s college and he is a graduate student teachinga class. They fall in love
    • Odd match. Marilyn is from Virginia and her mother is extremely traditional, while she wants to be a doctor and is willing to endure lots of doubt and sexism to make it happen. James is the son of Chinese immigrants and has felt like an outcast his whole life because of this.
  • Marilyn gets pregnant, so they get married and she drops out of school. Marilyn’s mother disapproves, and they never see each other again
  • Jack Wolff is introduced – a student at Lydia’s school who she spent a lot of time with leading up to her death.. Lydia’s older brother Nath thinks he knows something about why Lydia killed herself.
  • Stressed out, James sleeps with his teaching assistant Louisa, who is also Chinese. He finds comfort in her familiarity
  • Time skip back 11 years to when Lydia is 5. Marilyn’s mother dies, and going through her mother’s old stuff and realizing how sad her life was prompts Marilyn to want to pursue her own dreams again, which unfortunately means leaving her family behind. She drops everything and enrolls in school
  • 3 weeks later, she finds out she’s pregnant, so she returns home to her kids
    • During this time, Lydia vows to never disappoint her mother again, so that her mother never leaves again. At the same time, Marilyn vows that Lydia will be a doctor, pushing her own dreams onto her daughter
  • James and Marilyn both favor Lydia, and this frustrates Nath. He gets into Harvard though, and cannot wait to go to college.
  • Lydia befriends Jack in the last semester before her death. Jack has a reputation as a player, but their relationship is purely platonic and they find that they have a lot in common. Lydia opens up to Jack about her frustration with the pressure from her parents. Lydia is failing physics and does not feel like she can keep up.
  • Back in the present, after Lydia’s death, Marilyn finds out that James is sleeping with Louisa and confronts both of them
  • Hannah notices Lydia is distraught in the weeks leading up to her death, but does not bring it up. All Hannah wants is to be noticed. She is used to being the fly on the wall, ignored.
  • Time-skip to the days before Lydia dies. Various events push her to the breaking point, including being ignored by her older brother and jack rejecting her sexual advances. She decides to jump into the lake even though she cannot swim.
  • Back after her death, James and Marilyn make up. Nath and Hannah also come to terms with everything. Everyone resolves to move forward with sadness, but also to honor Lydia’s memory by not making the same mistakes again.

Characters

  • Lydia Lee: girl who commits suicides and prompts the entire story. Feels completely weighed down by the pressure from her family, wants to be her own person but lacks the facilities to express that
  • Marilyn Lee: Lydia’s mom. Her whole life she has wanted to escape the “perfect housewife” life that her mother led and wanted for her. When she finds that she has fallen into it anyways, she decided that her daughter will be a doctor. Puts a ton of pressure on Lydia, often doesn’t pay as much attention to her other kids.
  • James Lee: Lydia’s father. Son of Chinese immigrants, and this shapes his life. Has always felt like an outcast. Wants his son to be different, but also feels ashamed that he is not strong enough himself. Experience of racism leads him to become isolated
  • Nathan Lee: Lydia’s older brother. Has always been mildly jealous of the attention she gets, but is there for her nonetheless. Is looking forward to being able to go to Harvard and escape his family, and that makes him neglect his family a bit.
  • Hannah Lee: Lydia’s younger sister. Has always been extremely quiet, and feels ignored by her family. Is very empathetic and observant of those around her.
  • Jack Wolff: boy who lives on the same street as the Lees. Has a reputation as a player at school. Becomes friends with Lydia in the months leading up to her death. Is secretly gay/bisexual for Lydia’s brother Nath. When he rejects Lydia’s sexual advances, it’s one of the things that pushes Lydia over the edge to suicide.

Themes

  • racism
  • chinese-americanness
  • appearance vs. disappearance
  • secrets
  • loneliness
  • suicide
  • expectations and disappointment

Snippets

(Referring to Lydia's motivation for suicide) Because more than anything, her mother had wanted to stand out; because more than anything, her father had wanted to blend in. Because those things had been impossible. (25)

(Marilyn) She thought of her mother, the life her mother had wanted for her, the life her mother had hoped to lead herself: husband, children, house, her sole job to keep it all in order. Without meaning to, she’d acquired it. (78)

(Lydia, after her mother comes home from her disappearance) If her mother ever came home and told her to finish her milk, she thought, the page wavering to a blur, she would finish her milk. She would brush her teeth without being asked and stop crying when the doctor gave her shots. She would go to sleep the second her mother turned out the light. She would never get sick again. She would do everything her mother told her. Everything her mother wanted. (137)

For her it was too late. But it wasn’t too late for Lydia. Marilyn would not be like her own mother, shunting her daughter toward husband and house, a life spent safely behind a deadbolt. She would help Lydia do everything she was capable of. She would spend the rest of her years guiding Lydia, sheltering her, the way you tended a prize rose: helping it grow, propping it with stakes, arching each stem toward perfection. In Marilyn’s belly, Hannah began to fidget and kick, but her mother could not yet feel it. She buried her nose in Lydia’s hair and made silent promises. Never to tell her to sit up straight, to find a husband, to keep a house. Never to suggest that there were jobs or lives or worlds not meant for her; never to let her hear doctor and think only man. To encourage her, for the rest of her life, to do more than her mother had. (146)

(James, to Nath) He did not understand why he said these things to Nath, for that would have meant understanding something far more painful: that Nath reminded him more and more of himself, of everything he wanted to forget from his own boyhood. (154)

(Marilyn) Everything that she had wanted for Lydia, which Lydia had never wanted but had embraced anyway. A dull chill creeps over her. Perhaps—and this thought chokes her—that had dragged Lydia underwater at last. (244)

(James) What made something precious? Losing it and finding it. All those times he’d pretended to lose her. (279)