**Spoilers Be Here**
Everything I Never Told You is a poignant telling of an interracial family set in the 1970’s. It’s about the tragedy of losing a loved one– a child, a favorite child at that, but it’s also about belonging. James is a Chinese man who wants so badly to fit in that he worked to speak without an accent. He read encyclopedias and every book his parents could beg, borrow, or steal. Marilyn, with her blonde hair and blue eyes fits in entirely too well. So well that her mother sent her off to college ostensibly to find a man to marry.
And it’s about the children, who don’t fit in at all, in the intolerant climate of elementary, Jr High and high school. Nath, who is stereotypically brilliant, wants nothing more than to be noticed for his mind, but he can’t get around the family favorite, Lydia. She’s destined to be a doctor (so says her mother– she’s not going to college to find a man, to get caught up in making the perfect egg and cooking a fine meal). Lydia wants to please everyone– her mother, her brother, most especially her father. It’s important to him that his children appear to have a normal American life. So Lydia pretends to be popular and have friends. She carries the facade of the smart Asian kid, but in actuality she’s failing physics and the girls she says she’s close to haven’t spoken to her in years.
Lydia’s life is a lie. The coat of the Family Favorite is heavy; Lydia yearns to shrug it off. One night, out by the lake, though she can’t swim, she intends to do just that.
This book is as much about identity as it is about family tragedy. I especially resonated with Marilyn’s struggles to break out of her ‘pretty housewife’ mold… because as much as she fought it, she was good at cooking meals and taking care of her family. Her desire and attempts to finish college and apply to medical school end in failure. But Lydia… Lydia is her chance to live out that dream. Lydia won’t fail.
James, too is caught between his identity as a Chinese man (he doesn’t want Marilyn to work because it will give the appearance that he can’t support his family) and an American (he teaches US History, primarily Cowboys and Western culture). As the weight of Lydia’s death shatters this family, James finds comfort in a culture he’s tried hard to leave behind.
I didn’t think I would enjoy this book, but I listened to the audio version to and from work for about a week and found myself drawn into the drama of the Lee family. The relationship between Marilyn and James is at once loving and stifling. I enjoyed the forays back to their beginning and pulling the reader forward. Proof that our past shapes our present.