“Everything I Never Told You” Book Review

By Shanella Rodas-Iniguez—




"This little man, five-foot-nine at most and not even American, was going to teach them about cowboys?" -Celeste Ng.


In today's world, people live in a multicultural society, where every ethnicity’s traditions and culture are welcomed. In 2020, American society is known for respecting and properly accepting people from different backgrounds, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and culture (American Civil Liberties Union). However, in the ’60s and ’70s, the United States was a country dominated and controlled by Caucasian men. America was still a place where people from other backgrounds were excluded and women were expected to become housewives (Bedolla).


People from another ethnicity and women were considered to be minorities and did not enjoy the same privilege as Caucasian men. People as Celeste Ng, Chinese-American author, experienced this type of discrimination and decided to show the world the other side of living in a Caucasian community. Everything I Never Told You is an autobiography fictional novel where the author talks about how it was like to be a part of the minority community during 1960 and 1970. Ng creates the fictional family Lee as a way of explaining the current issues of the decade, where she shows how people from different ethnic backgrounds, in this case, Asian, were discriminated against, and how gender roles were stereo-typically expected to be followed.


Everything I Never Told You author, Celeste Ng, is a Chinese-American writer and novelist who has used her writing as a way of showing the world what was like being a first-generation Chinese-American and a woman in the 60’s and 70’s (Lamy). In her book, Ng creates the Lee family, which consists of Lydia, Marilyn, James, Nathan, and Hannah. At the beginning of the story, it is made known that Lydia, the middle daughter in the family, had died by drowning in the town’s lake. The story explains how Lydia was constantly pressured by her mother Marilyn and her father James to become the perfect child by fulfilling their lost dreams of becoming a doctor and a popular teen, eventually causing her to commit suicide. Similarly, Nathan, the eldest son, grows in the shadow of his sister Lydia where he is aware of her insecurities but tries to escape from his family by being accepted into Harvard. On the other hand, Hannah, the youngest daughter, was born and forgotten by her parents since all their attention was given to Lydia; she is described as a silent child who only observes her family without being acknowledged.


Everything I Never Told You shows the complexities of Asian-American identity in the 70s. In the novel, the Lees experience a number of racist encounters where their Asian-American background and identity become a problem. As living in a predominantly white town in Ohio, the Lee family is seen as an anomaly. For instance, Marilyn and James’ marriage was harshly criticized since interracial marriage was not accepted up until 1967. In the story, Marilyn’s mother tries to make her daughter change her mind before she marries James since she did not accept the idea of Marilyn marrying a man with an Asian background. Also, the Lee children experience feelings of isolation and disappointment as they are seen as different in their community. Lydia struggles with her identity since she has her mother’s fair features, Nathan becomes a victim of bullying and harassment at school, and Hannah feels invisible.

For James, his Asian background is the main reason for his insecurities since he is never taken seriously and is not accepted by others.


Everything I Never Told You explains how gender equality and women’s academic accomplishment was still not socially accepted in 1970. In the story, Marilyn struggles to choose between taking care of her family and her academic dreams of becoming a doctor. In the beginning, Marilyn's mother constantly reminds her that she needs to become the stereotypical perfect housewife. However, Marilyn decides to follow her ambitions and attends college, where she is continuously harassed by her male classmates. Eventually, she meets James as her history professor, falls in love with him and becomes pregnant with her son Nathan, making her goal to become a doctor harder to reach. After her second child, Marilyn becomes aware that she has the lifestyle that her mother always wanted for her, making her unsuccessfully try to continue her aspiration of becoming a doctor. Unfortunately, after her unsuccessful attempt to reach her academic dream, Marilyn tries to fulfill her hopes by forcing her daughter Lydia to study medicine, so she will never fall into her mother’s mistakes.


Everything I Never Told You demonstrates how insecurities can affect a man’s masculinity. Throughout the novel, James constantly struggles with identity acceptance because of his Asian background. He is reminded by his failed attempts to fit in that he is not seen as a real man by the predominantly white society that he and his family lives in. Because of his insecurities due to his masculinity, James pressures his son Nathan to become a socially successful man. Unfortunately, Nathan having his dad’s complexion fails on achieving his father’s hopes and expectations making him gain an aggressive attitude towards one of his classmates. Jack, Nathan’s classmate who is also in love with him, tries to hide his homosexuality by becoming a womanizer resulting in Nathan feeling overshadowed.


Everything I Never Told You is a novel that contributes to society’s awareness on topics such as racism and gender roles. This book helps raise awareness about what the other side of discrimination looks like and what it causes. With her writing, Celeste Ng helps minorities feel identified since they are not alone when it comes to society-acceptance struggles. In Everything I Never Told You, Ng writes about her real-life experiences in the form of fiction where she touches on topics that her family and herself struggled with. It is alarming to see how a writer portrays her real-life issues in a novel that is supposed to take place in the ’70s and still be able to find the same issues in 2020.


Everything I Never Told You is a novel that people should read if they want to understand more in-depth how discrimination can really affect minorities psychologically and socially. In her book, Ng covers some of the main societal issues of the 70’s such as identity acceptance, gender equality, and gender roles. Fortunately, in today’s society minorities are protected by law and are expected to receive the same respect that others do (American Civil Liberties Union). Hopefully, in the future humanity will leave in the past these issues and become a stronger undivided society.


Work Cited:

Bedolla, E. (2012). How did gender roles change during the 1970s? From https://trwtextset.weebly.com/how-did-gender-roles-change-during-the-1970s.html

American Civil Liberties Union. (2020). Racial Profiling. Retrieved April 15, 2020, from https://www.aclu.org/issues/racial-justice/race-and-criminal-justice/racial-profiling


Chee, A. (2014, August 15). The Leftovers. From https://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/17/books/review/everything-i-never-told-you-by-celeste-ng.html


Ng, C. (2014). Everything I never told you. London: Penguin Group.

Lamy, N. (2018, December 20). Celeste Ng Is More Than a Novelist. From https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/20/books/celeste-ng-everything-i-never-told-you-little-fires-everwhere.html


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