The parents met at Harvard: James a postgraduate student delivering his first ever lecture on that great American archetype, the cowboy; Marilyn an undergraduate determined to make it in the male-dominated world of medicine. Pregnancy and marriage puts paid to her ambitions as they move to small-town Ohio where James has been offered a teaching post. Chillingly, their marriage would be illegal in some States: James is the only son of Chinese immigrants and, in 1958, interracial relationships are taboo.
Growing up ashamed of his cultural heritage and stung by instances of casual racism, James has no significant relationships outside the family or the formalities of work. Still uncomfortable in his own skin, he is unable to see that his own desire for Lydia to be popular is as oppressive as Marilyn’s emphasis on the academic. Meanwhile, unable to tolerate seeing his younger self reflected in Nath, his hyper criticism of the boy, contrasting with his indulgence of Lydia, weakens the sibling support structure.
With the point of view moving back and forth between the different family members, the narrative arcs are skilfully intertwined so that disaster seems inevitable. Lydia has become locked into the false self: her parents’ creation, not just biologically, but psychically, a self that cannot survive her adolescent need to separate. Time and again, we see how the various family members misunderstand each other’s desires and motivations; assumptions that are never given voice cannot be tested against reality. Different readers might have different ideas about what constitutes “the great unsaid” in this novel but, for me, the saddest part is that the parents have never explored their understandings of cultural difference:
When they had married, he and Marilyn had agreed to forget about the past. They would start a new life together, the two of them, with no looking back. (p126)
In the blur of her fury, Marilyn doesn’t think twice about what she’s said. To James, though, the word rifles from his wife’s mouth and lodges deep in his chest. From those two syllables – kowtow – explode bent-backed coolies in cone hats, pigtailed Chinamen with sandwiched palms. Squinty and servile. Bowing and belittled. He has long suspected that everyone sees him this way … But he had not thought that everyone included Marilyn. (p116)
Everything I Never Told You is the third novel I read last year addressing coming-of-age in the 1970s. I can highly recommend this beautifully written and poignant tale of our struggles with difference and the harm that parents can unwittingly do to their children when their own issues have not been addressed. Thanks to Blackfriars for my review copy. I cared so much about these characters that, although it would have ruined the story, I kept hoping a fictional therapist would come to their rescue.