Everything I Never Told You | Study Guide

Celeste Ng

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Everything I Never Told You | Symbols


The Cookbook

The red cookbook symbolizes mother/daughter relationships. For the older generations the cookbook symbolizes Marilyn's mother's desire for Marilyn to fulfill traditional, conservative gender roles. Marilyn's mother wants to teach her to cook, clean, and keep a man happy. Marilyn, however, rejects this lifestyle and her relationship with her mother as well. After Marilyn's mother dies, Marilyn takes only the red cookbook as a memento of her mother's life. For Marilyn, it symbolizes everything she doesn't want—cooking, cleaning, and hostessing. Marilyn uses it to motivate herself to avoid domestic life.

When Lydia finds the tear-stained pages of the cookbook, it reminds her of her mother's deep unhappiness, which she assumes she has caused. She hides the cookbook, just as she hides her emotions. Finally, Marilyn finds the cookbook after Lydia's death and realizes Lydia had known how the book "pulled on her ... like a heavy, heavy stone." The discovery is a turning point for Marilyn, allowing her to open her heart to a relationship with her younger daughter, Hannah.


Water has two symbolic meanings in the novel. First, water represents symbolic and literal drowning. In Chapter 4 Nath is bullied at the swimming pool because he is Chinese. When he discovers the other children have played a trick on him, he climbs out of the pool and doesn't wipe his face, just lets the water "stream over his face" as if he is drowning in his emotions. Lydia almost drowns in the lake when Nath pushes her in, but instead he pulls her out, cementing their unity in the face of parents who utterly fail to understand them. Then, in Chapter 11, when Lydia feels she must conquer her fears and change her life, she decides to step into the water of the lake and swim to the dock instead of letting herself sink as she did long ago. Instead she drowns as she imagines the fly she sees trapped in amber at a museum must have done: "By the time it had realized its mistake, it was too late."

At the same time, water offers the possibility of symbolic rebirth. In Chapter 4 Marilyn steps out into a rainstorm to cleanse her feelings, and when she emerges, she vows to never be reduced to her domestic role. Lydia chooses water as the means for her symbolic rebirth, even though she ultimately drowns. Finally, Nath experiences emotional rebirth when Hannah pushes him into the lake after his fight with Jack in Chapter 12. As he emerges, he thinks that the three of them will later all feel "aglow ... as if they've been scoured" (scrubbed).

This pivotal water scene allows the three characters to act out their complicated relationships. Nath hits Jack, who he believes has some responsibility for Lydia's death. Hannah, who likes Jack and is angry with Nath, pushes Nath in the lake, forcing him to share Lydia's drowning experience and to fight his way back to the dock. Jack, who secretly loves Nath, holds out a hand that Nath will take. The three are unified in the shared experience, and the author provides clues that they will support each other in the future. Nath will one day want to gently trace the bump on Jack's nose; Nath chooses to swim toward Hannah, refusing to lose sight of her face.

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