Everything I Never Told You Summary, Themes, Characters & Synopsis

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About the Novel- Everything I Never Told You

TitleEverything I Never Told You
AuthorCeleste Ng
Publication Year2014
PublisherPenguin Press
No. of Pages298 Pages
GenreContemporary Fiction
Setting1970s in a small town in Ohio


The characters from Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng are:

  1. Lydia Lee ➜ The girl who died, and the family’s favorite child.
  2. Marilyn Lee ➜ Lydia’s mother, who had dreams of becoming a doctor.
  3. James Lee ➜ Lydia’s father, a Chinese-American who teaches at a college.
  4. Nath Lee ➜ Lydia’s older brother, who’s protective of her.
  5. Hannah Lee ➜ The youngest Lee child, often overlooked.


The themes from Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng are:

  1. Family Secrets ➜ Keeping secrets can hurt your family.
  2. Identity ➜ Figuring out who you are is important.
  3. Racism ➜ People can be mean because of your race.
  4. Expectations Sometimes, others expect too much from you.
  5. Communication It’s important to talk to your family.
  6. Differences We’re all different, but that’s okay.


Everything I Never Told You is a story about a family living in a small town in the 1970s. They are a mixed-race Chinese-American family. The story mainly focuses on Lydia, their daughter, who is very special to them.

One day, Lydia goes missing, and they find out she’s dead. This makes the family very sad and confused. They try to figure out what happened to her and why.


The narrative regarding Lydia Lee’s enigmatic demise jumps about in time. The beginning of the novel reveals that sixteen-year-old Lydia, who was her parents’ favorite child, has passed away, though her family is still in the dark about it. Living in Middlewood, Ohio, are the Lees. The white mother of Lydia, Marilyn, wants to be a doctor. James, her Chinese-American father, is a professor of American history. Her scholarly older brother Nathan, who is attending Harvard, has a space obsession. 

Hannah, her fifth-grade sister, is a quiet observer who is frequently disregarded. Marilyn is certain Lydia has been abducted when she discovers Lydia is missing. Nathan believes that Lydia’s neighbor Jack, a carefree recluse who enjoys having affairs with several women, is aware of something. Someone spots a rowboat in the town lake the next day. When searching the water, the police discover Lydia’s body.

The narrative changes to the 1950s and gives background on Marilyn and James’s goals and worries, as well as information on how they met, were married, and arrived at Middlewood. The funeral for Lydia and the Lees’ search for explanations bring the plot back to the present. According to an autopsy report, Lydia drowned to death, with no evidence of foul play. James seeks comfort in a relationship with Louisa, his teaching assistant. 

The focus then returns to Marilyn’s desire to pursue her studies and Lydia’s early years. Marilyn is even more determined not to grow up to be like her prim 1950s housewife mother after closing up her mother’s home after her death. Marilyn makes the unspoken decision to go from her family to complete her education in Toledo. A young Nathan experiences humiliation in the pool that summer, which he attributes to Jack. James is reminded of being taunted as a child by the situation, but instead of consoling Nathan, he is harsh with him in the hopes that Nathan will learn how to fit in.

The Lees mourn Lydia’s loss individually. Officer Fiske suggests that Lydia’s lack of friends and academic struggles may have contributed to her death. Nathan is still of the opinion that Jack was involved in Lydia’s passing. The narrative then returns to the summer of Marilyn’s disappearance. James, who is alone without his wife, struggles to care for Nathan and Lydia. Nathan is interested in space after watching a space launch on television. Lydia makes a self-promise that if her mother simply comes back, she will do everything she asks. Marilyn’s goals in Toledo are once more derailed by pregnancy. When James arrives to take her home, she decides to give Lydia everything of her unfulfilled desire. Nathan tosses the drowning Lydia into the water because he dislikes the attention she receives. Lydia becomes increasingly reliant on Nathan after he saves her. 

10 years later, Lydia still struggles to live up to her parent’s expectations, including her father’s emphasis on friendship and social acceptance and her mother’s wish for her to pursue a career in medicine. Lydia is aware that she is doing neither well. She worries that Nathan will leave her when he leaves for college. Lydia establishes a bond with Jack in her failing physics class. The two converse while driving and smoking cigarettes.

The narrative resumes following Lydia’s passing. The police declare Lydia’s death to be a suicide and end their inquiry. Misunderstandings sever Marilyn and James’ relationship further, and they tear the family apart. James keeps finding solace in Louisa. Nathan, meantime, continues to harbor suspicions about Jack. Hannah, however, is positive that Jack did nothing wrong because she discovered that Jack was in love with Nathan some time ago. Marilyn looks for James at Louisa’s and at school when he doesn’t get home. 

The narrative then shifts back to just before Lydia passed away, when she was spending time with Jack and Nathan was keeping an eye on their interactions from a distance. Nathan sees Lydia tearing up one of his Harvard letters. Lydia is initially pleased when James presents her with a heart necklace as an early birthday gift, but when she looks at the pictures—pictures of herself looking nice for a school dance that put pressure on her to be kind and fit in—she becomes disappointed and irate. 

James and Louisa accompany Lydia to receive her driver’s license on her sixteenth birthday. Lydia discovers James is having an affair with Louisa as they are driving. Lydia ascribes her failure at the permit exam to being unhappy, but the truth is that she just didn’t study. Lydia keeps the necklace James gave her hidden beneath her bed at home while feigning joy on her birthday.

The narrative picks up again after Lydia’s passing. When James gets home, he admits to having an affair. James is told to leave by Marilyn, who feels insulted and misunderstood. After tearing up Lydia’s room in a rage and discovering her old recipes, Marilyn realizes that Lydia loves her and not science. When Marilyn’s defenses come down as a result of this, Hannah is finally able to console her mother and get the attention she’s been craving. In the meantime, Nathan gets drunk and drives off. James discovers how much he misjudged Marilyn on the route to Toledo. To return home, he circles the automobile.

Backtracking, we find ourselves just before Lydia passes away. Lydia recognizes that Nathan is changing and leaving the family behind when he visits Harvard. Lydia decides to become different by giving her virginity to Jack. But Jack politely declines her offer and confesses his love for Nathan. Lydia threatens to reveal Jack’s secret because she feels dumb. The next thing Jack says to hurt Lydia is that she doesn’t know what she wants. 

Lydia attempts to determine why things went wrong at home. She concludes in the middle of the night that the moment Nathan dragged her out of the water is the key. Lydia leaves the home and heads to the lake because she wants to start anew, doing what she wants and not being frightened. She attempts to swim back to shore despite not knowing how to swim there by rowing out to the center of the pool. 

After Lydia’s passing, the narrative comes to an end. James makes his way back home, cuddles Hannah, and makes amends with Marilyn. After Officer Fiske safely returns him home, Nathan falls asleep. The following morning at the lake, Nathan, accompanied by Hannah, punches Jack to vent his frustration and guilt over Lydia. Hannah throws Nathan into the river to stop him. Nathan wants to drown himself but is unable to. The narrative concludes with optimistic predictions for the future with Jack rescuing Nathan from the ocean while he keeps staring at Hannah’s face.


What is Everything I Never Told You about about?

Everything I Never Told You is a novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s Ohio.

What is the main conflict in Everything I Never Told You?

The main conflict in Everything I Never Told You is the Lee family’s struggle to come to terms with the death of their daughter, Lydia.

What does the title Everything I Never Told You mean?

The title “Everything I Never Told You” refers to the secrets that the members of the Lee family keep from each other, both intentionally and unintentionally.

What attracts Marilyn to James Everything I Never Told You?

Marilyn is initially attracted to James because he is different from anyone she has ever met. He is intelligent, sophisticated, and worldly, and he represents everything that she wants to be.

What happens in the end of Everything I Never Told You?

In the end of Everything I Never Told You, Lydia Lee dies, and her family is left to grieve and come to terms with her death.

About the Author- Celeste Ng

Full NameCeleste Ng
Birth DateNovember 30, 1980
BirthplacePittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA
Education– Bachelor’s in English from Harvard University
– Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Writing from the University of Michigan
Writing StyleContemporary fiction with a focus on family dynamics, identity, and societal issues
Famous Works– Everything I Never Told You (2014)
– Little Fires Everywhere (2017)

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