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Literature / Everything I Never Told You

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"Lydia is dead. But they don't know this yet." These sentences open Celeste Ng's debut novel about a Chinese American family living in 1970s small-town Ohio. Lydia was the favorite child of her parents, Marilyn and James Lee. They were determined that she will fulfill the dreams they were unable to pursue. But when Lydia's body's found in the local lake, the delicate balance holding the Lee family together is broken.

Tropes present in "Everything I Never Told You" include:

  • Abusive Parents: James definitely has shades of emotional abuse towards Nath - he constantly scolds his son for his interests, mocks him for not having any friends, ignores him and at one point slaps Nathan in the face for daring to be interested in anything that isn't Marilyn's disappearance.
  • Ambiguously Bi: While Jack has definitely slept with a lot of girls, he's in love with Nath. When he reveals this, it's left ambiguous as to whether he was actually attracted to any of them or if it was for show.
    • There's even some evidence he doesn't sleep with them at all—Lydia notices at one point that the box of condoms he keeps in his car still contains exactly as many as it did two months before. (Though this may just indicate that he stopped sleeping around when he befriended Lydia.)
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  • Bittersweet Ending: Heavy on the bitter, since Lydia is, of course, dead. But Marilyn and James are on their way to fixing their marriage, and it's stated that Nath will both begin a relationship with Jack and achieve his dreams of becoming an astronaut and it seems like Hannah might finally get some attention as the only remaining daughter.
  • Doting Parent: Both Lydia's parents dote on her, showering her with attention, expensive gifts, and devoting a great deal of their time to helping Lydia with her studies. Deconstructed, however, as the attention becomes a burden and her parents both fail to see that Lydia hates school and doesn't have friends.
  • Education Mama: Because Marilyn got pregnant and had to leave school before she finished her degree, she's obsessed with Lydia becoming a doctor. She's been buying her science books since she was five and consistently pushes her too hard in school, to the point that Lydia isn't allowed to eat breakfast before she fixes the problems she got wrong on her physics homework the night before.
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  • Family Versus Career: A choice Marilyn is forced to make over and over again, to her chagrin. First she meets James when she goes to college and ends up getting pregnant with Nath before she can complete her studies. Then it happens again when she leaves the family for a while so she can finally finish her degree, only to find she's pregnant with Hannah. That Lydia is the only child whose birth didn't derail Marilyn's dream job might be partly why Marilyn constantly dotes on her daughter while barely noticing the other two.
  • Freudian Excuse: Marilyn's obsession with Lydia's career stems from her mother and everyone else assuming that all Marilyn was going to do with her life was have a husband and children, something she did actually end up doing and never did finish college.
  • It's All About Me: Lydia can have shades of this, although given that both her parents are putting all their hopes and dreams on her, it's hard to really blame her for it. For example, when Nath gets into Harvard, all she can think about is that he's leaving her, rather than being happy for him. Nath eventually gets really fed up with this.
    • James also assumes that growing up as a Chinese man in a country that is mostly white, nobody else could possibly understand how it feels to be an outsider as he does. Marilyn calls him out on this when she angrily points out that she was always treated like one by her peers for being interested in science because she was a woman.
  • Kick the Dog: James actually slaps Nath across the face when Nath innocently comments on how astronauts can go to the moon and still come back, yelling at him to stop obsessing over space while their mother is missing.
    • Lydia gets a moment of this when James and Marilyn are (for once) paying attention to Nath when he gets into Harvard and deliberately sabotages it by telling Marilyn at that very moment that she's failing physics and instantly shifting the spotlight back to her. Nath is so mad about this that when Lydia comes to him later that night in tears he outright completely rejects her attempted apology.
  • Meaningful Echo: When Marilyn and James marry, her racist mother keeps trying to her to call off the wedding nearly all the way up to the altar. James asks what they were arguing about, and Marilyn, in an effort to downplay it, says her mother just thinks she "should marry someone more like [her]". Fast-forward to a vicious fight in the wake of Lydia's death—James snaps that her mother was right, she should have married someone more like her, and storms off to Louisa's apartment.
  • Middle Child Syndrome: Averted - Lydia is the middle child and receives nearly all her parents' attention and energy. Nath and Hannah are virtually ignored by their parents.
  • Missing White Woman Syndrome: Invoked by Marilyn. She angrily snaps that if Lydia were a white girl, the police would not be so quick to dismiss the case as suicide or an accident rather than the murder she insists it must have been. Although in this case it actually was an accident.
  • Never Suicide: Zigzagged. Despite Marilyn's insistence that her little girl would never do such a thing and was happy, and that someone must have lured her onto the lake, everything points to suicide—Lydia was terrified of swimming, had no friends, was dealing with intense pressure from both parents, and her only source of emotional support had had enough of her. Then it turns out she didn't mean to drown, she rowed herself to the center of the lake and was going to swim back as a symbolic fresh start. She just wasn't good enough to make it.
  • Not Now, Kiddo: Poor Hannah is a virtual non-entity to her parents, to the point they often forget they have a third child.
  • Only Friend: Jack was virtually Lydia's only friend.
  • Parental Favoritism: The novel makes it abundantly clear that Lydia is the favourite. Lydia's parents barely pay any attention to her younger sister, Hannah. Marilyn and James are excited that Nath got into Harvard for about 2.5 seconds until they find out that Lydia failed a physics test...then all their attention is back on her. Marilyn also mentions that she wanted the last thing she ever saw to be Lydia's face over Nath or Hannah's. James also clearly favours Lydia, having no involvement with Hannah until the end of the novel and is mildly abusive towards Nath.
  • Psychological Projection: A large part of the family's problems stem from constantly projecting their issues onto one another instead of talking things over and communicating how they feel. For example, Marilyn and James project their wishes and hopes onto Lydia, with Marilyn wanting Lydia to be successful academically to vicariously live her own academic dreams through her, while James wants his mixed-race daughter to be popular and well-liked as he never was. Meanwhile James and Nath have a very tense relationship because James sees himself as a boy in Nath and unfairly resents him for it. The only one exempt from this is Hannah, because she is generally ignored by everyone in her family.
  • Triang Relations: Type 5. Lydia is/was in love with Jack, who's in love with Nath.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Nath gives Lydia one when he goes off for an overnight visit at Harvard, and she calls him seeking comfort about another incident with their parents. He scathingly calls her out for always assuming that her problems are worse than his and demanding that he drop everything for her when he's doing something that should be for him, and hangs up.
    • Jack gives Lydia one for letting her parents tell her how to live her life, dictating her interests and never standing up for herself.
  • The Unfavorite : Both Hannah and Nath when compared to Lydia. Hannah is universally ignored by pretty much everyone in the family. Nath is looked down on by his father because he is bookish and like him. Marilyn has nothing to do with Nath even though he has big scientific dreams, which results in Nath's jealousy towards Lydia for how their mother ignores his ambitions to become an astronaut in contrast to Lydia, who doesn't want to become a doctor.
  • Unfortunate Implications: In-universe, Marilyn snaps at James for "kowtowing" to the police instead of fighting harder to make them treat Lydia's death as a murder. She only realizes the possible racist undertones after she says it and sees that James is hurt.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: While presumably James breaks up with Louisa, as he and Marilyn are repairing their marriage, even when the book is talking about everyone else's future, it doesn' t mention what Louisa does in the wake of their affair.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?: James is disdainful of Nath because he sees his former self in his son and is unfairly resentful towards him for it.

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