Following a convention of the thriller genre, the book opens with a disappearance: Lydia’s failure to come downstairs for breakfast, at which point her family discovers that she is missing from the house altogether. When Marilyn looks in Lydia’s bedroom, she notices that her daughter’s bed is “unslept in,” although everything else looks normal. The contrast between this normality and Lydia’s mysterious absence introduces a tension between appearances and reality: while everything might seem fine, this surface-level normality masks the loss and absence that often exist at the heart of ordinary life. Reality and disappearance, then, are shown to be related.
The fact that Lydia ends up being found drowned in the lake confirms the sense that she has not only died, but disappeared, swallowed up by the mysterious vastness of the water. Lydia’s death is foreshadowed earlier in the book when, during a trip to the lake with Nath, he pushes her in the water and she almost drowns. When Nath notices that his sister is underwater, he experiences “a flash of complete separateness as Lydia disappeared beneath the surface.” The lake symbolizes the possibility that even the closest of familial ties can suddenly be broken when people “disappear.” Lydia is not the only character to be submerged in the lake; in the final scene of the book, Hannah pushes Nath into the lake after he punches Jack. While he is in the water, he thinks of Lydia while keeping his gaze fixed on Hannah, not wanting to “lose sight of her face.” Nath is determined not to disappear like his sister did.
Other characters in the novel also disappear. When Marilyn’s mother Doris dies, Marilyn cannot find any trace of her in her mother’s house, and she notes that it is as if her mother was never there. Similarly, when Marilyn runs away from her family to finish her bachelor’s degree, she ensures that they have no way of contacting her or knowing where she is. When Marilyn learns about James’ affair with Louisa and exiles him from the house, James ends up driving to Toledo, where Marilyn also fled. Yet despite all these acts of disappearance, the narrative also shows that—short of actually dying—it is difficult to ever truly disappear from your family. For example, after Marilyn leaves she discovers that she is pregnant, a fact that compels her to reunite with James and her other children. Similarly, when Nath looks forward to the prospect of escaping his family when he leaves to attend Harvard, it is with “the confidence of someone who had never yet tried to free himself of family.” This description of Nath’s “confidence” suggests that freeing oneself from family is much harder than he imagines.
The theme of disappearance is closely related to the importance of appearances in the book. Doris is the character most immediately concerned with appearances; even though Marilyn’s father has left her, she still insists on looking perfect at all times (even wearing lipstick to breakfast), thus denying the reality of her husband’s absence. Although Marilyn wants to disassociate herself from her mother’s obsession with image, in reality she simply inherits a different version of it. Rather than fixating on beauty, Marilyn is so desperate for Lydia to fulfil her dream of becoming a doctor that she isn’t able to see that Lydia is only pretending to enjoy and succeed at her academic work. Similarly, James is fixated on ensuring that Lydia is popular at school, and he only realizes after her death that Lydia’s stories about her (supposed) friends were entirely made up. Overall, the book suggests that when people become too fixated on appearances, the truth disappears beneath a superficial version of reality.
Appearances vs. Disappearances ThemeTracker
Appearances vs. Disappearances Quotes in Everything I Never Told You
Upstairs, Marilyn opens her daughter's door and sees the bed unslept in: neat hospital corners still pleated beneath the comforter, pillow still fluffed and convex. Nothing seems out of place. Mustard-colored corduroys tangled on the floor, a single rainbow-striped sock. A row of science fair ribbons on
the wall, a postcard of Einstein. Lydia's duffel bag crumpled on the floor of the closet. Lydia's green book bag slouched against her desk. Lydia's bottle of Baby Soft atop the dresser, a sweet, powdery, loved-baby scent still in the air. But no Lydia.
Newcomers to the school district assumed Mrs. Walker was a widow. Her mother herself never mentioned it. She still powdered her nose after cooking and before eating she still put on lipstick before coming downstairs to make breakfast. So they called it keeping house for a reason, Marilyn thought. Sometimes it did run away.
It was as if America herself was taking him in. It was too much luck. He feared the day the universe would notice he wasn't supposed to have her and take her away. Or that she might suddenly realize her mistake and disappear from his life as suddenly as she had entered.
Marilyn, unaware that her youngest is listening so closely, so longingly, blots her eyes and replaces the diaries on the shelf and makes herself a promise. She will figure out what happened to Lydia. She will find out who is responsible. She will find out what went wrong.
When Nath had been born, then Lydia, Marilyn had not informed her mother, had not even sent a photograph. What was there to say? She and James had never discussed what her mother had said about their marriage that last day: it's not right. She had not ever wanted to think of it again. So when James came home that night, she said simply, "My mother died." Then she turned back to the stove and added, "And the lawn needs mowing," and he understood: they would not talk about it.
Three photo albums of Marilyn and not a single shot of her mother. As if
her mother had never been there. Was she sad? How could she miss her mother when her mother was nowhere to be found?
And then, in the kitchen, she discovered her mother's Betty Crocker cookbook, the spine cracking and mended, twice, with Scotch tape. On the first page of the cookie section, a deliberate line in the margin of the introduction, the kind she herself had made in college to mark an important
passage. It was no recipe. Always cookies in the cookie jar! the
paragraph read. Is there a happier symbol of a friendly house? That
was all. Her mother had felt the need to highlight this.
The story––as it emerges from the teachers and the kids at school––is so
obvious. Lydia's quietness, her lack of friends. Her recent sinking grades. And, in truth, the strangeness of her family. A family with no friends, a family of misfits. All this shines so brightly that, in the eyes of the police, Jack falls into shadow. A girl like that and a boy like him, who can have––does have––any girl he wants? It is impossible for them to imagine what Nath knows to be true, let alone what he himself imagines.
The summer Lydia fell in the lake, the summer Marilyn went missing: all of them had tried to forget it. They did not talk about it; they never mentioned it. But it lingered, like a bad smell. It had suffused them so deeply it could never
Up there––eighty-five miles high, ninety, ninety-five, the counter said––everything on earth would be invisible. Mothers who disappeared, fathers who didn't love you, kids who mocked you––everything would shrink to pinpoints and vanish. Up there: nothing but stars.
NaOH became Nath, his small face wide-eyed and reproachful. One morning, consulting the periodic table, instead of helium she thought He and James's face floated up in her mind. Other days, the messages were more subtle: a typo in the textbook––"the common acids, egg. nitric, acetic . . ."—left her in tears, thinking of hard-boiled, sunnyside up, scrambled.
She followed him all the way to the lake and to the end of the little pier. The houses on the other side of the water looked like dollhouses, tiny and scaled-down and perfect. Inside, mothers were boiling eggs or baking cakes or making pot roasts, or maybe fathers were poking the coals in the barbecue,
turning the hot dogs with a fork so that the grill made perfect black lines all over. Those mothers had never gone far away and left their children behind. Those fathers had never slapped their children or kicked over the television or laughed at them.
He must really hate Nath, Lydia thought. As much as Nath hates him. She imagined them in class together all these years: Nath sitting close to the front, notebook out, one hand rubbing the little furrow between his eyebrows, the way he did when he was thinking hard. Utterly focused, oblivious to everything else, the answer right there, sealed inside his mouth. And Jack?
Jack would be sprawled in the back corner, shirt untucked, one leg stretched into the aisle. So comfortable. So certain of himself. Not worried about what anyone thought. No wonder they couldn't stand each other.
It happened so quickly that if she were a different person, Hannah might have wondered if she'd imagined it. No one else saw. Nath was still turned away; Lydia had her eyes shut now against the sun. But the moment flashed lightning-bright to Hannah. Years of yearning had made her sensitive, the way a starving dog twitches its nostrils at the faintest scent of food. She could not mistake it. She recognized it at once: love, one-way deep adoration that bounced off and did not bounce back; careful, quiet love that didn't care and went on anyway. It was too familiar to be surprising. Something deep inside her stretched out and curled around Jack like a shawl, but he didn't notice.
“I didn't care. I knew what I wanted. I was going to be a doctor." She glares at James, as if he has contradicted her. “Then—fortunately—l came to my senses. I stopped trying to be different. I did just what all the other girls were
doing. I got married. I gave all that up." A thick bitterness coats her tongue. "Do what everyone else is doing. That's all you ever said to Lydia. Make friends. Fit in. But I didn't want her to be just like everyone else." The rims of her eyes ignite. "I wanted her to be exceptional."
You loved so hard and hoped so much and then you ended up with nothing. Children who no longer needed you. A husband who no longer wanted you. Nothing left but you, alone, and empty space.
That long-ago day, sitting in this very spot on the dock, she had already begun to feel it: how hard it would be to inherit their parents' dreams. How suffocating to be so loved. She had felt Nath's hands on her shoulders and been almost grateful to fall forward, to let herself sink… Don't let me sink, she had thought as she reached for his hand, and he had promised not to when he took it. This moment, Lydia thought. This is where it all went wrong.
What made something precious? Losing it and finding it. All those times he'd pretended to lose her. He sinks down on the carpet, dizzy with loss.
Then he feels small arms curling round his neck, the warmth of a small body leaning against him.