Discussion Questions on Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
What kind of story did you think this was in the first few chapters? What kind of story did it end up being? How does the author change the story’s premise as the narrative goes along?
Lydia and Nath look a lot alike. The narrator explains that “Only the hair color is different” (pg. 2). Is this important to the story that they look alike? What might it symbolize?
Marilyn meets two female doctors who have children and/or husbands, which means that, while her dream of becoming a doctor is very difficult, it’s not impossible. Who or what does Marilyn seem to place the blame of her failed dreams on? What might be the true or hidden reason(s) why she doesn’t follow her dreams? Why does she keep these dreams hidden from her husband?
Surely there must be some people in the town that would accept Marilyn and James. Why don’t they make an effort to find friends? Would past rejections have kept them from trying again, or are there other reasons they isolate themselves? Are the reasons why Marilyn doesn’t make friends different than the reasons why James doesn’t?
Early on, Lydia is seen by the mother as being a child who keeps secrets (pg. 4). Why doesn’t Lydia keep a diary then? Why is it important to her mother that she does? Doesn’t everyone in this book keep secrets? Whose secrets do the most damage to the family?
What is the relationship between James and Nath? Why does James keep saying “things that sounded like jokes but weren’t” (pg. 156)? Why does he not want to hear anything about space exploration? James wants popularity for his daughter, but what does James want for his son?
Do you think James would have cheated on his wife if his daughter hadn’t died? Why or why not?
The cover of the cookbook is described like this: “Each time she opened the cookbook, the woman on the front looked a little more like her mother—the smile, the folded-back collar, the way she looked not right at you but over your shoulder, just past you.” (pg. 135) Why does Lydia keep the cookbook? Why does she see her mother in the picture on the cover? What does this tell us about Marilyn? What is it about cooking that brings so many issues for Marilyn? What does cooking represent to her?
How did James’ parents affect his outlook on life and his race? What effect did the early death of James’ parents have on him? What might have happened had they still been alive when James got older?
Why does Nath harbor such strong emotions about Jack after the scene at the pool? It’s not like Jack was the only kid who made fun of him. Why did that scene make such a big impact on Nath?
Hannah seems to add very little to the plot. What does she add to the story then? In what ways would this story be different if there were only Nath and Lydia?
Why does Lydia think she’ll be able to swim? Does any part of her know that this is suicide? In the earlier incident where Nath pushes her into the water, she seems to accept the fate of drowning. What does she expect from trying to swim at the end? What might water symbolize in the book?
Read this excerpt aloud in the group before reading the questions: “In a 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—Stanley Hewitt, the policemen, the checkout girl at the grocery store. But he had not thought that everyone included Marilyn.” (pg. 116) There are so many incidents of people reacting derogatorily towards James and his family, especially over their eyes. Given this world he lives in, it seems natural for James to feel sensitive about certain words. Why doesn’t Marilyn feel the impact of her words? Why do Marilyn and James not talk about race? What are they afraid of?
Marilyn wants to stand out and James wants to blend in. Which one is more damaging to Lydia? Why can’t Marilyn or James see that about themselves? Which of these traits do the children inherit more?
Which character is the “I” in the title of the story “All the Things I Never Told You”?