How does Marilyn navigate being a woman with career ambitions?
Throughout her life, Marilyn struggles between balancing her academic ambitions with the expectations placed on her as a woman in the mid-20th century. Marilyn is constantly torn between following her own dreams of going to medical school and living up to her mother's domestic expectations. When Marilyn attends Radcliffe College, she is subject to incessant harassment by her male peers at Harvard. During Marilyn's junior year, she falls in love with James. Shortly after, she becomes pregnant with Nath and must leave school. Once she has children to care for, Marilyn is unable to pursue the dreams that she had previously put on hold. She grows frustrated at the lack of choices in her life.
In Everything I Never Told You, motherhood and professionalism cannot coexist. Marilyn is unable to return to school without abandoning her family and receiving backlash. Additionally, Jack's mother, a doctor, is demonized for her decision to have a career. During Marilyn's visit to the local hospital, she becomes frustrated by Dr. Wolff's power in the workplace. Instead of going on to pursue her own career, Marilyn redirects her attention to Lydia. She chooses to displace her own dreams onto Lydia.
How does race affect the characters in Everything I Never Told You?
When Marilyn first notifies her mother, Doris, of her engagement, Doris fails to recognize her daughter's relationship as legitimate. This heightens James's insecurity concerning how he is perceived by members of his community. Doris warns Marilyn that her children will never fit in due to their mixed-race identity, a prophecy that eventually comes to fruition. Aside from the discrimination he faces in his personal spheres, James experiences racial discrimination in the workplace. He is ultimately not given a position in the history department at Harvard due to his race.
In addition, each of the Lee children struggles with their mixed-race identities. Lydia, favored for her fair complexion, is the subject of social pressure due to James's belief that she can easily assimilate. However, Lydia continues to feel left out and ostracized by her peers. Hannah, the youngest daughter, feels invisible. Nath, the eldest and only boy of the family, struggles with his masculinity due to biases against Asian men, and his father's unresolved race issues.
What is the significance of the title of the novel?
Everything I Never Told You is a novel about secrets: all the things that people don't tell each other. Through the story's use of flashback, all family secrets are revealed after Lydia passes away. James secretly feels that he is the cause of his children's ostracism. James also hides his affair with his teaching assistant, Louisa. At the same time, Marilyn is not honest about how she feels stifled by having had children early. Jack does not reveal his true sexual desires. Finally, Lydia does not disclose the amount of pressure she feels from her parents.
However, hiding these secrets comes at a cost to those that keep them. Marilyn chooses to abdicate from her role as mother, instead running away to Toledo to complete her degree. James displaces his social insecurities onto Lydia, forcing her into friendships that are neither sustainable nor desirable. In addition, James is confronted about his affair by both Nath and Marilyn. Following this confrontation, he is forced to re-evaluate his relationships with his family. Jack creates an alter-ego that causes his entire community to view him differently than he sees himself. Finally, Lydia's secrets isolate her from friends and family. In this way, Ng shows how keeping secrets can cause more damage than revealing the truth, however painful.
How is "home" represented in the novel?
Generally, home has positive connotations of warmth and consolation. However, In Everything I Never Told You, the traditional idea of the "home" is turned on its head. The Lees fails to function as a unified family. Rather, each person leads an individual and unique experience that is not communicated to the other. In this depiction, Ng contends that home can be a breeding ground for conflict. Due to these conflicting experiences, each family member diverts his/her attention to something else. Nath, for example, consumes himself with the idea of outer space. Marilyn tries to return to college, but she is ultimately pulled back home. These character struggles represent how the physical home is the reminder of unresolved family dynamics.
How does Ng explore masculinity throughout the novel?
James deeply struggles with his masculinity. He is mocked by his peers throughout his education and into his career. In addition, his relationship with Marilyn is tainted by Doris's low opinion of Asian men. Rather than discuss his complicated emotions and feelings of worthlessness, James hopes that Nath will be a strong and hyper-masculine young man. However, James realizes during Nath's childhood that he is nerdy and subject to teasing by his peers.
Following Lydia's death, Nath struggles with asserting his own masculinity. In particular, he feels pressure to become the man of the house while James is having an extramarital affair. Jack Wolff becomes the scapegoat for Nath's conflicting feelings. This is interesting as Jack, too, is struggling to form his masculine identity. Instead of being open about his sexuality, Jack creates the identity of a rebellious, womanizing bad boy.