When Marilyn and James meet, they are both at a promising stage of their careers. James is an accomplished graduate student who may be on the brink of being hired as an assistant professor at Harvard; Marilyn is excelling as a Radcliffe undergraduate destined for medical school. However, in the 16 years following their initial meeting, both of their ambitions unravel. James is not hired by Harvard, and, although he secures another teaching position at the less prestigious Middlewood College, he is haunted by this earlier failure and by his persistent inability to achieve social acceptance. As a result of this disappointment, he pressures his children (particularly Lydia) to be likeable and popular. Marilyn, whose dreams of being a doctor are thwarted by marriage and motherhood, also projects her own ambitions and expectations onto her middle daughter. However, where James’ pressure for Lydia to be popular is somewhat gentle, Marilyn’s is all-consuming. Her insistence that Lydia fulfill her dreams of becoming a doctor is so intense that she loses her daughter emotionally even before Lydia’s eventual disappearance. Marilyn does not see Lydia as a person in her own right, but rather as a vehicle for correcting the disappointment that Marilyn feels has ruined her own life irrevocably.
Perhaps the most peculiar thing about James and Marilyn’s expectations of Lydia is their fatal rigidity. It is never made clear why James and Marilyn place the burden of their ambitions almost entirely on Lydia’s shoulders and not those of her brother or sister. This is especially strange in light of the fact that Nath does excel in science, and—like his mother and father—is admitted to Harvard. Yet despite his success, James and Marilyn seem only to be vaguely proud of their son, and remain single-mindedly fixated on Lydia. The inflexibility of James and Marilyn’s ambitions is precisely what makes them so dangerous. They cannot accept their children for who they are, just as they cannot accept how their own lives have turned out. It is only after their marriage and family are thrown into chaos as a result of Lydia’s death and James’ affair that James and Marilyn are able to return to a feeling of satisfaction in their romance, even if they remain disappointed by other aspects of their lives.
Frequently, the book depicts ambition and disappointment as existing in pairs. Where one person fails, another succeeds, and what one person sees as success, another sees as failure. This happens inter-generationally; for example, Doris wants Marilyn to become a perfect housewife like she was herself, and thus perceives Marilyn’s dedication to science as a failure. Similarly, James cannot feel proud of Nath’s academic success because Nath reminds James of himself and his own social failures. Lydia, meanwhile, hides Nath’s acceptance letter from Harvard as a result of her conviction that Nath’s success will further accentuate her own failure. Her discovery that Jack is secretly in love with Nath emphasizes this point, and seems to be the final straw that leads to her decision to jump into the lake.
Overall, the book suggests that expectations and ambitions will inevitably lead to disappointment. This is less due to the fact that the Lees’ lives are especially filled with failure—they arguably experience an average (if not greater than average) level of success in life—but rather because the events of life are impossible to anticipate. The unpredictability of life is particularly shown through the novel’s use of the thriller genre; each surprising twist is a reminder of how impossible it is to control one’s own life and fate. In this sense, disappointment is inevitable.
When Marilyn and James discuss his affair, they both speak in terms of disappointment. James speaks of Doris’ disappointment at the fact that he is Chinese, and Marilyn thinks that she is disappointed because she hoped James would be “different” from other men and not have an affair. However, after James returns from his drive to Toledo, he and Marilyn reconcile and feel a renewed sense of commitment to one another. This suggests that, rather than clinging to one’s original expectations and resisting disappointment, it is better to simply accept disappointment as an inevitable part of life.
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment ThemeTracker
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment 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.
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.
So part of him wanted to tell Nath that he knew: what it was like to be teased, what it was like to never fit in. The other part of him wanted to shake his son, to slap him. To shape him into something different. Later, when Nath was too slight for the football team, too short for the basketball team, too clumsy for the baseball team, when he seemed to prefer reading and poring over his atlas and peering through his telescope to making friends, James would think back to this day in the swimming pool, this first disappointment in his son, this first
and most painful puncture in his fatherly dreams.
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.
It was a sign, Marilyn decided. For her it was too late. But it wasn't too late for Lydia. Marilyn would not be like her own mother, shunting her daughter toward husband and house, a life spent safely behind a deadbolt. She would help Lydia do everything she was capable of. She would spend the rest of her years guiding Lydia, sheltering her, the way you tended a prize rose: helping it grow, propping it with stakes, arching each stem toward perfection… She buried her nose in Lydia's hair and made silent promises. Never to tell her to sit up straight, to find a husband, to keep a house. Never to suggest that there were jobs or lives or worlds not meant for her; never to let her hear doctor and think only man. To encourage her, for the rest of her life, to do more than her mother had.
"I am disappointed." Marilyn's head snaps up. "l thought you were different." What she means is: I thought you were better than other men. I thought you wanted better than that. But James, still thinking of Marilyn's mother, hears something else.
"You got tired of different, didn't you?" he says. "I'm too different. Your mother knew it right away. You think it's such a good thing, standing out. But look at you. Just look at you."
“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.