Everything I Never Told You

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Everything I Never Told You Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng was born in Pittsbsurgh, Pennsylvania, and moved to Shaker Heights, Ohio when she was 10 years old. Her parents were Chinese immigrants who moved to the United States from Hong Kong in the 1960s. Ng’s father was a physicist who worked for NASA and her mother was a chemist who taught at Cleveland State University. Ng has an older sister, and she has explained that the character of Hannah in Everything I Never Told You was based on her own experience of being the youngest child. Ng attended Harvard University, where she studied English. After graduating from Harvard, she earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. She has published both short stories and essays in a range of literary journals, and Everything I Never Told You is her debut novel. Her second novel, entitled Little Fires Everywhere, will be published in September 2017. Ng lives with her husband and son in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she teaches fiction at the GrubStreet creative writing program.
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Historical Context of Everything I Never Told You

Perhaps the earliest historical event that is significant to the plot of Everything I Never Told You is the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned all Chinese immigration to the United States. While the act was initially written to be in effect for only 10 years, it was extended indefinitely. Although this law was partially revised in 1943, it was not until the Immigration Act of 1965 that severe limits on Asian-American immigration were finally lifted. The 1950s and ‘60s saw dramatic changes in race relations in the United States; along with the African-American civil rights movement, activists of Asian descent formed their own movement, and it was these individuals who, in the late ‘60s, first advocated the use of “Asian-American” in place of “Oriental.” The slow adoption of this new term is demonstrated in Everything I Never Told You by the fact that Lydia and her family are still referred to as “Oriental” in the wake of her death in 1977. The time period covered in the novel also saw important developments in women’s rights. Marilyn attends Radcliffe in the 1950s, an era defined by a return to highly traditional gender roles. The image of the beautiful, cheerful, and selfless housewife could be found throughout popular culture and media, and women who harbored their own career ambitions were seen as unnatural and immoral. This began to change with the advent of the second-wave feminist movement in the 1960s. “Women’s liberation” activists campaigned for both cultural change and legal reform, including abortion rights, non-discrimination, and equal pay. The novel touches on these shifts, mentioning the gender integration of Harvard and Yale, as well as the Equal Rights Amendment (a constitutional amendment first introduced in 1923 that many people predicted would pass by 1979, but never did). Other important historical events include the Cold War “space race,” a term used to describe the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union to achieve mastery of space exploration. The race began in 1955; one of its most climactic moments was the launch of NASA’s Gemini 9, which is what first inspires Nath to study outer space. Also relevant to the novel is the murder spree of the serial killer David Berkowitz, also known as Son of Sam, who killed six people in New York City in the summer of 1976. It is this series of murders that partially convinces Marilyn that Lydia has been violently killed rather than disappearing of her own accord.

Other Books Related to Everything I Never Told You

In the reader’s guide to Everything I Never Told You, Ng mentions several other literary works that relate to the book’s themes. These include Elizabeth Strout’s Amy and Isabelle, which follows a charged mother-daughter relationship; The Love Wife by Gish Jen, which portrays the family of a Chinese man and his white American wife; and Carolyn Pankhurst’s The Dogs of Babel, which is narrated by a man trying to understand the mystery of his wife’s death. Other novels that explore similar themes to Everything I Never Told You include Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, which follows the lonely and oppressive lives and deaths of five sisters living in suburban Michigan, and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, which tells the story of the American-born daughter of Turkish immigrants in her first year at Harvard. Upon publication, Everything I Never Told You became a key text in the Asian-American literary canon. Two of the most well known authors in this tradition are Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, both of whom (like Ng) are the US-born children of Chinese immigrants. Prominent contemporary Asian-American authors include Alexander Chee (whose novel Edinburgh explores the life of a half-Scottish, half-Korean boy who navigates his emerging gay identity in the wake of recovery from sexual abuse), and Tony Tulathimutte (whose novel Private Citizens explores, among other themes, Asian-American masculinity).
Key Facts about Everything I Never Told You
  • Full Title: Everything I Never Told You
  • When Written: 2009-2014
  • Where Written: Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • When Published: 2014
  • Literary Period: Contemporary American literary fiction
  • Genre: Thriller
  • Setting: Middlewood, a fictional town in Ohio
  • Climax: When Lydia rows out and jumps into the lake
  • Antagonist: Initially, Jack (before his innocence is proven)
  • Point of View: Third-person narrator

Extra Credit for Everything I Never Told You

Autobiographical inspiration. The title of the novel was inspired by all of the things Ng wanted to tell her father after he passed away in 2004.

Musical accompaniment. Ng has stated that the mood of the scene in which James and Marilyn lie in bed in James’ apartment corresponds to the song “Lay Lady Lay” by Bob Dylan.