‘Everything I Never Told You’ develops real characters

Within her debut novel, “Everything I Never Told You,” Celeste Ng tells the story of a Chinese-American family living in small-town Ohio during the 1970s. Ng immediately slams her readers with the overarching conflict of the text. Lydia Lee is dead and her family does not know how to cope. Throughout her text, Ng carefully reveals the secrets, desires and insecurities of the Lee family, and she achieves this by molding and constructing unique relationships between five distinctly different characters.

Although Ng relies on a relatively simple storyline, her novel has exploded onto the public scene because of her ability to craft real and relevant characters who experience real and relevant emotions. Instead of detailing the various events that take place within this novel, I chose to provide a brief summary of each character since Ng specifically focuses on the relationships between each family member throughout her text. Ng has garnered much praise and approbation for her debut novel because of her ability to develop such excitingly authentic characters. If you have ever experienced the unfavorable effects of loneliness, frustration or discrimination, then perhaps these characters will resonate with you in some way. 

James Lee – James Lee is a Chinese professor who has experienced great bouts of discrimination throughout his lifetime. Since others have constantly treated him unfairly and cruelly, James has learned to endure much internal pain, embarrassment and humiliation. As his children grow up, he tries to teach them the importance of fitting in and the significance of conformity or complying with the social customs of the time. James does not want his children to experience the same pain he did when he was a young adult, so he urges them to make friends with the popular kids, attend social functions and participate in cool activities, like sports. Overall, James believes that conformity is the key to success—it is not a good thing to be different.

Marilyn Lee – Marilyn Lee is a white woman who falls in love with James after sitting through his class on the American cowboy. They wed shortly after meeting. Although Marilyn’s mother expects her to become the ideal housewife, Marilyn has other plans for herself. She wants to attend med school and she wants to become a doctor. Marilyn scoffs at the notions of American womanhood. She did not want to spend her days cooking meals or tending to the needs of her husband; she wants to save lives and she wants to challenge the misconception that women lack the mental capacity to thrive in a male-dominated field. But Marilyn gets pregnant and her dreams slowly fizzle. She drops out of school to care for her children, and she ultimately transforms into the housewife her mother always hoped she would become.

After Marilyn gives birth to Lydia, though, she realizes that her daughter still has the opportunity to achieve the dreams she once had for herself. So, Marilyn pressures Lydia to achieve perfect grades and skip out on social functions to finish homework and read books about science and anatomy. Marilyn grows so blinded by her own desires that she fails to realize just how miserable her daughter truly is.

Lydia Lee – Lydia is the favorite child and she feels immense pressure from both of her parents to succeed in school while trying to blend in with her high school peers. Although she appears to ace her exams and although she appears to have lots of friends, Lydia is actually struggling to keep up her grades and maintain friendships. She realizes that she is not quite living up to her parents’ expectations, so she feels isolated and alone. Her older brother is leaving soon for college as well, so Lydia feels even more trapped beneath her parents’ intense gaze. Lydia never has the opportunity to construct her own identity because her parents spend so much time trying to mold her into the most successful and perfect individual she can be. She does not have a voice of her own, so she struggles to vocalize her feelings and frustrations.   

Nathan Lee – Nathan is the oldest child. He is not super athletic and he is not really interested in sports like most boys his age. Instead of playing sports, Nathan spends most of his time reading books about astronauts, outer space and the moon, and because of this, he has a strained relationship with his father. James wants his son to fit in with the other kids in his grade, but Nathan does not seem to mind his individuality. Overall, Nathan is eager to escape the bubble of his home and he is eager to capitalize on the one thing that makes him feel worthy, his studies. Nathan has lived behind the shadow of his sister, so he is excited to thrive on a college campus.

Hannah Lee – Hannah is the youngest child. She hardly speaks throughout the entire text, and she is practically invisible to her parents. Although Hannah is a quiet character, she is an extremely observant and perceptive young girl. She yearns for the love and affection of her mother, but she is constantly overlooked because her big sister’s needs are always placed before her own. Hannah often feels unimportant or unwanted.

While reading through each page of Ng’s novel, I grew even more fascinated by the complexity of her characters. Ng slowly exposes her characters’ inner qualities and characteristics by detailing the peculiar relationships between each family member, and she ultimately reminds us that human beings are incredibly complicated creatures. As human beings, we consciously (and unconsciously) judge one another based on our clothing, our hairstyle or our speech and because of this, we often fail to recognize the other, more important, qualities that lie just beneath our skin. Overall, Ng teaches us that we must always look beyond the surface if we truly wish to learn about and understand each other’s character.