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Everything I Never Told You

Everything I Never Told You Summary


Here you will find a Everything I Never Told You summary (Celeste Ng's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Everything I Never Told You Summary Overview

The narrative centers around the sudden demise of sixteen-year-old Lydia Lee, the favorite child in her family. The Lee family, based in Middlewood, Ohio, is initially unaware of her death. Lydia's mother, Marilyn, a white woman with dreams of becoming a doctor, instantly suspects foul play, while her Chinese American father, James, an American history professor, seeks solace in an affair following the tragedy. Lydia's siblings, including her Harvard-bound brother Nathan, obsessed with space, and her overlooked younger sister Hannah, react in their own ways. The narrative moves between past and present, providing insights into the family's history, Marilyn's interrupted aspirations, and the tensions within the family. Following Lydia's death, the family members grieve independently, and as their lives unravel, doubts and suspicions arise. Police suggest that Lydia's increasing isolation and declining academic performance may have led to suicide. Nathan, however, remains suspicious of their neighbor Jack. Meanwhile, the narrative reveals painful memories from the past, such as Marilyn's decision to abandon her family to pursue her studies, Lydia's desperate longing for her mother's return, and a terrifying incident where Nathan, resentful of Lydia getting all the attention, pushes Lydia into a lake, knowing she can't swim. The story concludes with Lydia grappling with her parents' high expectations, struggling acadically, and developing a friendship with Jack. After Lydia's death, which is ruled as suicide, the family dynamics further unravel, causing misunderstandings and rifts. The narrative loops back to moments before her death, revealing Lydia's decision to change herself, her confrontation with Jack, and her choice to revisit the lake where she almost drowned years ago. The narrative ends on a hopeful note, with the family attempting to reconcile and move forward, after the turbulent events.

chapter 1

Lydia Lee, a 16-year-old, has not been seen since May 3, 1977. The only signs of her absence are her untouched breakfast, neat bed, and absence from school. Her brother, Nathan, who is planning to attend Harvard, recalls hearing her play music late the night before. Her younger sister, Hannah, quietly observant, thinks Lydia might have been abducted. Their mother, Marilyn, shares this fear despite assuring herself that such events are unlikely in their small college town of Middlewood, Ohio. Lydia's striking blue eyes mirror her mother's, one of many reasons she is the favorite among her siblings. Nathan and Hannah, on the other hand, resemble their Chinese American father, James, a middle-aged professor in American history. James receives a panicked call from Marilyn while at work, causing him to leave his office abruptly. Despite the police assurance that many teens go missing only to return unscathed, the Lee family remains worried. An old story resurfaces about Marilyn's disappearance a decade ago. To aid in their search, Lydia's recent birthday snapshot is given to the police. The Lees also share a list of Lydia's supposed friends, though Nathan knows she has none. He suspects their neighbor Jack, who he despises, might be involved as he had seen them together a few times. Meanwhile, Hannah spends time with a book she swiped from Lydia's room. The town is soon abuzz with the sighting of an empty rowboat in the town lake. The Lees dismiss the possibility of Lydia going out on it, given her inability to swim. However, a search of the lake on Thursday morning reveals the grim truth - Lydia's lifeless body is discovered.

chapter 2

The narrative rewinds to the 1950s, spotlighting Marilyn's time in school. Unlike her peers, Marilyn dreams of becoming a doctor. She rebels against gender norms, requesting to enroll in shop class instead of home economics, a request rejected by the principal. Marilyn's mother, Doris Walker, a single parent who has maintained the illusion of a perfect 1950s housewife, teaches the home economics class. Marilyn's admission to Radcliffe is seen by her mother as a chance for her to meet accomplished Harvard men. In Radcliffe, Marilyn excels in an introductory physics class, outperforming her male classmates. During her junior year, she develops an attraction for James Lee, a graduate student and her professor in "The Cowboy in American Culture" course. Marilyn kisses James in his office, realizing she wants him in her life, and drops his class to pursue a relationship. James, a Chinese American, is drawn to Marilyn's ability to fit in, something he's always struggled with due to his ethnicity. He feels like an outsider despite his education at the prestigious Lloyd Academy and Harvard, and learning about American culture. However, his relationship with Marilyn makes him feel accepted. They decide to get married. James hopes for a position in Harvard’s history department while Marilyn intends to continue her medical studies. Their plans are derailed when Harvard rejects James and Marilyn discovers she's pregnant. James accepts a position at Middlewood College and Marilyn shelves her dreams. Marilyn’s mother, who lives in Virginia where interracial marriage was illegal in 1958, comes for the wedding. She is displeased to learn that Marilyn is marrying a Chinese man. This wedding is the last time Marilyn sees her mother.

chapter 3

In the present, Marilyn is puzzled by James' insistence for a closed casket at Lydia's funeral since she hasn't seen the water damage to Lydia's face. Nathan, upset at Jack's presence, interrogates him to learn more about Lydia's demise. After causing a scene, James sends Nathan home where he muses about Jack's reputation — a loner living with his single mother who is known for his multiple sexual conquests at school. Nathan suspects Lydia was one of them. Seeing police at Jack's residence, Nathan approaches to overhear. Jack informs the officers that Lydia was his friend, he was teaching her to drive, and they smoked together the day before she went missing. He reveals Lydia was troubled about her grades, family issues, and Nathan leaving for college. Back home, Marilyn and Hannah retreat while James heads to his office to review Lydia's autopsy report. Discovering Lydia drowned without drugs in her system and no evidence of sexual or physical abuse, he is met by his assistant Louisa. He accepts her invitation to her flat where they become romantically involved. In the middle of the night, Marilyn finds herself in Lydia's room, reflecting on Lydia's aspirations to be a doctor like her. She stumbles upon numerous empty diaries she had gifted Lydia, hoping they would provide clues about her daughter's death. In another room, Hannah longs for her mother's embrace and relives the events of the day, trying to pinpoint where things fell apart.

chapter 4

The narrative flashes back to the 60s. Marilyn yearns to resume her education now that her kids are in school. She encounters Tom Lawson, a university chemistry professor, at a party and requests to assist him in his research. James, her husband, disapproves of her intentions, assuming she's concerned about finances. After Marilyn's mother passes away, she travels to Virginia to empty her mother's house. She stumbles upon her mother's cookbook and angrily contemplates her mother's unambitious life, vowing not to follow in her footsteps. Meanwhile, James takes young Nathan to a local YMCA for swimming lessons. Reluctantly, Nathan participates in a game of Marco Polo. However, when it's his turn to be "it", the other kids leave the pool and a girl hurls racial insults at him. Jack, another boy, purposely lets Nathan catch him, which Nathan misconstrues as mockery and leaves, angry. James yearns to explain to Nathan that he understands the feeling of being mocked, but refrains, hoping Nathan will be more sociable than he was. Upon her return, Marilyn pursues the research assistant role but discovers Dr. Lawson has already filled the position, having assumed she wasn't serious. On a whim, she visits the hospital and converses with Jack's mother, Dr. Wolff, which leads her to the realization that she could be a doctor if not for her familial obligations. Using her mother's savings, Marilyn covertly enrolls in local college classes and rents a flat in Toledo. She readies herself to leave, cooking food and collecting sentimental items from her family. She pens a note for James before ripping it to shreds and departs without notifying anyone. James returns home to find his kids anxiously awaiting him. He contacts the police while Lydia contemplates documenting her mother's abrupt departure in her diary but is unsure of the words to use.

chapter 5

Hannah, oblivious to her mother's past disappearance, tries to comprehend Lydia's situation by sneaking to the lake at night. However, the rowboat she planned to use is missing. With her parents preoccupied with their grief and Nathan wandering aimlessly, Hannah discovers the necklace James gave Lydia under her sister's bed. Despite the temptation, she keeps her promise not to wear it. She eventually falls asleep in Lydia's room followed by a heated argument between James and Marilyn over the unlocked door the next morning. Marilyn persists in her belief that Lydia was kidnapped. The police, however, suggest that Lydia might have committed suicide due to loneliness. During the police interview, Nathan breaks down in tears wanting to mention Jack. As James and Marilyn bicker, Hannah hides under a table. James leaves, driving around the lake deep in thoughts of Lydia's speculated suicide. He ends up at Louisa’s intending to end things but doesn't. Meanwhile, Marilyn ruminates on Lydia's eagerness to please while pacing her room. Discovering cigarettes and condoms in Lydia's bag, Marilyn is confronted with her daughter's unknown life. Downstairs, Hannah tidies up a broken teacup, a remnant of her mother's anger. When Nathan spots Jack returning from graduation, he yearns to confront him, but Hannah dissuades him. Nathan later reveals to Hannah that Lydia once had a close call with the lake as a child.

chapter 6

The narrative rewinds to the summer when Marilyn disappeared and Lydia had her lake incident. James persistently follows up with the police despite evidence that Marilyn left voluntarily. As James obsessively pores over Marilyn's torn note, Nathan and Lydia pass their days in front of the television, living on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. James suspects Marilyn's absence is due to regrets about their interracial marriage. When queried by a curious neighbor, James assures Nathan and Lydia that they are not to blame for their mother's departure. One afternoon, Jack approaches Nathan with a casual offer of sweets and an assertion that a single parent is all a child needs, leaving Nathan irritated. His life takes a turn when he witnesses the launch of Gemini 9, sparking his interest in space. However, when he tries to discuss his newfound passion with his father, a distraught James slaps him. This doesn't deter Nathan's enthusiasm. In parallel, Lydia finds solace in Marilyn's Betty Crocker cookbook, vowing to fulfill her mother's wishes if she returns. Meanwhile, Marilyn, in Toledo, is struggling to concentrate on her studies, missing her family terribly. After a few fainting spells, she discovers she's pregnant. The hospital alerts James, who eagerly takes Marilyn back home. Marilyn accepts that medical school is out of the question and redirects her thwarted ambitions onto Lydia. Lydia purposely discards the cookbook that has been a source of sadness for Marilyn, leading Marilyn to abandon cooking. Feeling neglected, Nathan heads to the lake with Lydia in tow. In a fit of impulse, he pushes her into the water. Lydia, unable to swim, experiences a strange sense of relief before Nathan pulls her out. They forge a bond of mutual reliance. A school picnic reveals James's disappointment in Nathan's lack of social grace.

chapter 7

A decade after Marilyn's disappearance, Lydia continues to bear the burden of pleasing her parents. James, often sidelined due to his Chinese heritage, wants Lydia to excel socially where he couldn't. Marilyn dreams that Lydia will become a doctor, unaware that Lydia is struggling with physics. Lydia remembers forsaking a possibility of fitting in at school to return to her mother. She leans on her brother Nathan for solace, who in turn is growing engrossed in his interests in space and plans to move on. Lydia, afraid of Nathan leaving her behind, hides his Harvard acceptance letter. The truth comes out when a misdelivered letter finds its way to Nathan with Jack's help. James is proud of Nathan's achievement, but Lydia's admittance of failing physics shifts their attention back to her, leaving Nathan frustrated. Lydia and Nathan reconcile, and Lydia reminisces about Nathan squashing a spider using James's shoe, leaving a mark she later concealed with whiteout. During Christmas, Lydia receives books as gifts from her parents, affirming their expectations. The narrative then leaps back to her failed social attempts at thirteen, leading her to pretend having friends by having fake phone conversations. Now fifteen, Lydia remembers an embarrassing social incident, partly caused by her father. In physics class, Jack and Lydia bond over their shared academic failure. To exact revenge on Nathan for leaving for college, Lydia befriends Jack by asking for a ride home. Inside his car, they share intimate conversations over cigarettes, reflecting on their shared identity as the only Chinese American students in their school and how people form opinions about others even before knowing them.

chapter 8

Following Lydia’s passing, James and Louisa find solace with each other, even though James still maintains a harsh demeanor towards Nathan, leading to a conflict. The police deem Lydia’s death as a suicide, a decision that Marilyn perceives as prejudice due to Lydia’s mixed race. The police's conclusion stirs tension between James and Marilyn, as James misinterprets Marilyn’s reactions as having doubts about their marriage, leading him to express his regret to Louisa about not marrying someone more like himself. Nathan, convinced that Jack is involved in Lydia's death, confides in the police, but they disregard his claims. Meanwhile, Marilyn seeks refuge in Lydia’s room, while Nathan retreats to his room. Hannah, hoarding small stolen items from her family, believes that Nathan is mistaken about Jack's role in Lydia's death. She remembers a moment where Jack's interaction with Nathan at the lake revealed to her that Jack was in love with Nathan, not Lydia. In Lydia’s room, Marilyn reflects on her conversation with James, realizing that he may have misunderstood a conversation she had on their wedding day. She yearns to reassure James that she doesn’t regret their marriage and he isn't at fault for Lydia’s death. However, James doesn't return home, and after two days, Nathan advises Marilyn to look for him at Louisa’s apartment. Marilyn confronts Louisa, who denies James is there, but Marilyn, certain of his presence, leaves a message for her husband that she expects him home.

chapter 9

Before her demise, Lydia frequently converses with Jack, opening up about her life and asking about her brother Nathan. Jack takes it upon himself to teach her how to drive. Nathan, suspicious of Jack's intentions, keeps a close eye on Lydia, but they never discuss her burgeoning friendship with Jack. Meanwhile, her parents keep pressuring her to excel acadically and be sociable. Lydia attempts to hide a letter from Harvard to Nathan by tearing it up, but he catches her and expresses his eagerness to leave home. Observing Lydia's melancholy, her father James gifts her a heart-shaped locket, selected with Louisa's help, for her upcoming birthday. Initially, she is thrilled, but her joy evaporates upon seeing photographs of her at a ninth-grade dance inside the locket. James hoped to remind her of the importance of companionship and affection, but it only increases her stress to conform. James and Louisa accompany Lydia to get her driving permit. Spotting the intimate way Louisa interacts with James, Lydia concludes they are having an affair, sparking her fury. Distraught, she fails her driving test and fears she'll never escape her parents' control. At home, Hannah excitedly assists Marilyn in baking a birthday cake for Lydia, also intended to celebrate her getting her permit. When Lydia comes home, she admits she didn't pass the test. Hannah is aware it's because Lydia didn't prepare, having previously taken Lydia's driving manual unnoticed. In her room, an irate Lydia removes her new locket and stashes it under her bed. During her birthday dinner, she forces a smile. Only Hannah perceives the insincerity of her sister's smile, understanding Lydia's perilous shift.

chapter 10

After Lydia's death, James admits his extramarital affair to Marilyn. They have a heated argument, both expressing feelings of alienation - James due to his ethnicity and Marilyn because of her aspiration to become a doctor. Marilyn tells James to leave, suggesting they act as if they never met. Consequently, James and a distraught Nathan both leave home. In her frustration, Marilyn destroys Lydia's science-related belongings, but finding Lydia's concealed Betty Crocker cookbook, she recognizes that her daughter loved her, not science. Marilyn then warmly embraces Hannah which she always yearned for. In his despair, Nathan purchases and consumes two bottles of whiskey, eventually throwing up. He is found by Officer Fiske and driven home. Simultaneously, James, heading towards Toledo, recalls Marilyn's unhappiness at his proposal to erase their shared past. He comprehends that Marilyn desired a different career path, not a different life partner. This revelation makes James understand the extent of his misinterpretations.

chapter 11

Before Lydia’s tragic end, the narrative takes us back to a time when Nathan was preparing for his trip to Harvard. During this time, he shares a tender moment with Lydia under the stars. Lydia insists on him calling her from Harvard, which he fails to do. Nathan's absence leads Lydia to pay more attention to Hannah, resulting in a confrontation over a locket that ends with Lydia prohibiting Hannah from wearing it. Lydia reaches out to Nathan, who is distant and suggests she confide in Jack. Feeling alienated, Lydia resolves to change herself by offering herself to Jack. However, Jack gently rejects her, revealing his feelings for Nathan. This realization leaves Lydia feeling foolish and angry, prompting her to threaten to expose Jack's secret. On her way home, Lydia hides a box of condoms in her bag. At dinner, Nathan shares about his journey while Lydia ponders over her own life. She finds herself drawn to the lake at 2 a.m., where she reflects on her fear of losing her family and her dependence on Nathan. She recalls the relief of escaping her parents' expectations when Nathan pushed her into the water. Determined to take control of her life, she rows out into the lake and steps into the water, intending to swim back despite her inability to swim.

chapter 12

Following Lydia's demise, James returns home, resolving to mend his relationship with Marilyn. He finds Hannah alone, withholding information about her tearful bonding with her mother and Nathan's intoxicated return by the police. Instead, they share a light moment over Lydia's footprint on the ceiling. Bonding over a game he once played with Lydia, James begins to rebuild his relationship with Hannah. Upon waking, Marilyn spots James affectionately cuddled up with Hannah. He pledges his permanence in their lives. As Hannah leaves them alone, Marilyn and James rekindle their emotional and physical bond, expressing their unspoken feelings. James refrains from any future interaction with Louisa but regrets his abrupt termination of their relationship. Later, Marilyn, longing for Lydia, is relieved to find Hannah sleeping in her daughter's bed. The following day, Jack's presence at the lake prompts Nathan to approach him for a confrontation. Despite Hannah's assurance that Jack isn't responsible for Lydia's demise, Nathan seeks the truth of Lydia's relations with Jack. He is taken aback when he realizes Lydia never revealed Jack's secret to her brother. Feeling Nathan's need to blame someone, Jack allows Nathan to hit him. A distressed Hannah pushes Nathan into the water to stop him. Nathan contemplates Lydia's last moments as he sinks, his desire for self-destruction overruled by his survival instinct. Jack extends a helping hand to Nathan, who accepts it. The narrative alludes to the Lee family's future: their ongoing quest to comprehend Lydia's fate, Hannah's transformation, Nathan's eventual success as an astronaut, and his evolving emotions for Jack. But in that instant at the lake, Nathan, resurfacing and accepting Jack's help, has his gaze fixed on Hannah.

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