Lydia Lee is the middle child born to Marilyn and James Lee. She is repeatedly referred to as the "favorite child," mostly due to her fair complexion. At the beginning of the novel, the audience discovers that Lydia has drowned in the town's lake. Though the circumstances for her death are not yet revealed, this moment is the catalyst for the realization of the Lee family's deep-seated familial tension. The rest of the story, told in flashbacks, explains the mounting pressures that caused Lydia to eventually commit suicide. Although Lydia shows little genuine interest in her studies, Marilyn projects her academic hopes onto her daughter. James, ashamed of his Asian race and consistently made to feel like an outcast, pressures Lydia to have a vibrant social life.
Unhappy with her circumstances, Lydia begins to engage in rebellious behavior. She starts smoking cigarettes with the school's archetypal bad boy, Jack Wolff. This causes tension between Lydia and her older brother, Nath, whom she deeply admires. When Nath begins preparing to leave home and begin school at Harvard, Lydia experiences a deep sense of abandonment. After her romantic pursuit is rejected by Jack, Lydia is pushed to the edge and ultimately decides to end her life.
Nath is the eldest of the Lee children. During his childhood, Nath was resentful of the attention his parents gave to Lydia. This frustration culminated in Nath pushing Lydia, who does not know how to swim, into the local lake. However, after realizing the magnitude of his action, Nath saves his sister and simultaneously vows to comfort and support her. Nath is aware of Lydia's insecurities and of the pressure she feels from her parents. Although Nath never quite fit in at school, he prides himself on his academic success and nurtures his keen interest in space exploration. Nath strongly clashes with his father, as James is resentful that his son is not a popular alpha-male. When Nath is accepted to Harvard University, his father's alma mater, he realizes that it is his opportunity to escape his complicated life at home. Following Lydia's death, Nath grows angry and emotional towards James and Jack, the two other male characters in the story.
James Lee is a first-generation Chinese American. He was raised in a rural farm town in Iowa, where his father worked on the grounds of a boarding school. Due to his father's profession, James was able to attend the boarding school free of charge. While at this school, James was incessantly mocked for his Asian race and made to feel like an outsider. These motifs of isolation and social outcasting continue throughout the remainder of James's life and profoundly influence his career choice, his romantic pursuits, and how he treats his children. In the period leading up to Lydia's death, James rejects his relationship with Marilyn and begins having an affair with his teaching assistant, Louisa. Lydia is aware of this relationship, and she is deeply disturbed by her father's infidelity. Following Lydia's death, James vows to change his cold behavior and instead treat Nath, Hannah, and Marilyn with affection and understanding.
Marilyn Lee is the wife of James Lee and mother of Nath, Lydia and Hannah Lee. She is described as a classically beautiful, American woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. Marilyn grew up in Virginia with a single mother who was a Home Economics teacher. Marilyn's mother insisted that her daughter forgo her dreams of being a doctor and instead seek to marry a man and become a dutiful housewife. Despite her mother's wishes, Marilyn goes on to study chemistry and physics at Radcliffe College. While at Radcliffe, Marilyn experiences gender discrimination in the classroom. She falls in love with James, and must stop her studies when she unexpectedly becomes pregnant with Nath. Although Marilyn vowed to return to school, she is caught up with being a mother to two babies. As time progresses, Marilyn resents her decision to put her studies on pause. She runs away from home and returns to college in Toledo, Ohio to complete her degree. While away at school, Marilyn realizes she is pregnant with Hannah and must go back home. Although she gives up on her own professional dreams, she projects her hopes for medical school onto Lydia. After Lydia's death, Marilyn comes to terms with the fact that Lydia aimed to please her mother and did not pursue her own personal desires.
Hannah Lee is the youngest of the Lee children. In the story, it is said that she was "born and then forgotten." Hannah is often described as perching and hiding in the nooks of her home. She is very perceptive, observant, and sensitive, and she seems to understand her family's dynamics despite her young age. In addition, Hannah is the first person to realize that Jack is in love with Nath. Hannah idolizes Lydia, and she is devastated by her death. At the end of the novel, Marilyn and James begin to give Hannah more attention.
Jack Wolff is the Lee's neighbor and the quintessential "bad boy" at Nath and Lydia's high school. His mother is a single mother who works as a doctor at the local hospital, which further distinguishes him from his peers. Jack is known to drive different schoolgirls around in his car and take their virginities. In addition, he smokes cigarettes. When Lydia begins to rebel against her parents, she immediately gravitates towards Jack and pursues him romantically. This infuriates Nath, who views Jack as a bad influence. However, when Lydia attempts to seduce Jack, he explains that he is actually in love with Lydia's brother. This confuses Lydia, and the two have a discussion that ultimately causes Lydia to understand her characteristic passivity. When Lydia realizes that she continually submits to her fears, she craves "starting over" and pushing herself beyond her comfort zone. This motivates her to go swimming at the lake, which ultimately leads to her drowning. Following Lydia's death, Nath blames Jack and beats him up.
Louisa is the only other Asian person in the Lees' hometown, and James's teaching assistant. The two begin to have an affair, and Marilyn, Nath, and Lydia each separately become aware of James's infidelity.
Doris Walker is Marilyn's mother, and the "only home [economics] teacher at Patrick Henry Senior High." Doris does not support Marilyn's dream to become a doctor, and instead, she hopes her daughter will find a husband during her time at Radcliffe College. When Marilyn becomes engaged to James, Doris is unable to accept their relationship because of James's race.
Everything I Never Told You Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Everything I Never Told You is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.