May 3, 1977. Lydia Lee
, 16, is dead. She doesn't show up for breakfast. Lydia's siblings are Nath
(older, soon to head off to Harvard in the fall) and Hannah
(younger, 5th grader).
Her mother, Marilyn
, is a home-maker. Her father, James
, is a history professor. Marilyn is Caucasian. James is Chinese. James has a pretty, 23-year-old teaching assistant, Louisa Chen
, who is also Chinese.
The police initially think Lydia has run away. The mention an incident when Marilyn went missing about ten years ago, but later returned. James and Marilyn come up with a list of Lydia's friends, but they are most people who ask her for help on homework. Nath knows she was spending time with a guy, Jack Wolff
, but doesn't mention him.
One Wednesday, a passerby notices a rowboat floating in the lake nearby. By Thursday morning, they've found her body in the lake.
James and Marilyn met at Radcliffe in 1957. Marilyn was studying physics, and James was teaching history. During Marilyn's senior year, she gets pregnant, so they get married and she gives up the idea of going to medical school. Marilyn's mother disapproves of the mixed-race marriage, and after the wedding she doesn't see her again.
(Back in present day) They have a funeral for Lydia. Nath sees Jack there. Nath tells him that he knows Jack was with Lydia the day before she disappeared. Nath has grown up with Jack, but also knows that Jack is a player when it comes to women and likes "deflowering" them. The police question Jack.
After the funeral, James finds comfort with Louisa who he is having an affair with. Meanwhile, Marilyn looks through diaries that she had given to Lydia over the years for clues, but they are all empty.
Marilyn recalls that about ten years ago her mother had a stroke and passed away. Around that time, she had been thinking about wanting to finish her degree and have a career, but James discouraged it. When she went to sort out her mother's things, she sees her mother's cookbook and is reminded of how her mother's whole life was home-making and felt trapped.
Marilyn ends up disappearing for a summer after deciding to leave her family and enroll in school to finish her degree. She tried to write a note, but couldn't find the words and ended up leaving without a word.
(Back in present day) The officers drop by to give an update. They've concluded that Lydia didn't have many friends, and that there's no evidence anyone was on the dock or boat when she drowned. Marilyn is adamant Lydia would not have done this to herself and there must be a perpetrator out there.
Once the police leave, James and Marilyn get into an argument. James accuses Marilyn of being rude to the police, and Marilyn says he's "kowtowing" to the police -- a word with racial implications that sets him off. He leaves angrily and Marilyn breaks a teacup.
Marilyn looks through Lydia's stuff and finds a box of condoms and pack of cigarettes.
Lydia fell into the lake once before when they were younger, and it's the same summer when Marilyn disappeared. Nath is frustrated that summer since he wants to go swimming but James is too distracted to take them. Nath blames Lydia because she's the little one who needs to be watched.
After Marilyn left, no one knew if she was coming back. Nath recalls that Jack tells him that kids only need one parent (Jack has an absentee dad). It made Nath angry at the time and increased his dislike of Jack (Jack likely said it to make him feel better, but it probably made Nath angry because it implied she was never coming back).
In Toledo, Marilyn called a few times but never said anything. Lydia promises to herself that she'll be good if her mom comes back.
Marilyn accidentally cuts herself on a broke bottle and ends up having to go to the hospital. There, she gets fixed up but also tells the doctor she thinks she's pregnant. They end up confirming the pregnancy (Hannah) and also calling James. By then, it had been nine weeks since Marilyn left.
Marilyn realizes it is too late for her to realize her dreams of being a doctor, but not for Lydia. From then on, she would be dedicated to helping Lydia realize those dreams. Lydia would also keep her internal promise and do as her mom asks.
When Marilyn and James go back to Toledo to pick up Marilyn's stuff, Nath and Lydia go to the dock. Nath wants to swim and as he takes off his sock, he gets unbalanced and pushes Lydia into the water. He has to dive in to save her. Lydia remembers that her brother saved her, while Nath feels guilty for pushing her in.
As they get older, Lydia is a better and better student, the embodiment of her parents dreams. At the same time, she's unhappy and knows how much she's sacrificed -- parties, friends, etc. When she's 15, her grades start dropping.
Nath has been her only friend, and when she sees the letter that he's gotten into Harvard, she hides it under her mattress since she doesn't want him to leave.
They eventually find out he's gotten in. Meanwhile, Lydia has to tell her parents she's failing physics. In school, Lydia talks to Jack and finds out he's retaking physics because he previously failed. They bond over their mutual failure. Jack and Lydia begin hanging out.
The police close the investigation, ruling it a suicide. James feels angry, saying that if Lydia were white, this would have never happened because she would have fit in. He and Marilyn argue, and he leaves. He again turns to Louisa for comfort, who makes him a Chinese comfort food (char siu bao -- barbecue pork buns). Louisa falls asleep hoping James will leave his wife for her.
Hannah reflects on a day not too long ago when all the kids went swimming at the lake and Jack showed up. She realized then that Jack was in love with not Lydia, but Nath.
James has not returned and Marilyn wonders where he is. Nath says he thinks he knows -- probably with Louisa. Marilyn goes to Louisa's house and asks if he's there, but she denies it.
The narration goes back in time to that past summer. It explains that when Jack and Lydia had started hanging out, they were not hooking up. Instead, Jack was teaching Lydia how to drive. Jack asks Lydia to tell Nath that's not a bad guy, but Lydia says we wouldn't believe her.
Nath finds Lydia with another one of his Harvard letters (this one's about visiting campus) and gets angry. He tells her she needs to accept that he's leaving. James gives Lydia a necklace, but Lydia sees it as another way James is pressuring her to fit in.
Marilyn keeps bugging Lydia about her homework and she's sick of it. And soon, Louisa needs a ride at one point and ends up in a car with James and Lydia when Lydia is on her way to take her driving test. Lydia realizes Louisa is sleeping with her father (in actuality, Louisa was just flirting, they didn't sleep together until after Lydia died).
Lydia is furious with everyone in her family and unable to concentrate on her driving test. She fails it and feels like she'll never get away. That night they celebrate Lydia's birthday, but only Hannah seems to realize something is off with Lydia.
Narration returns to present-day. After Marilyn confronts Louisa, James goes home. James admits to Marilyn that he's been having an affair since Lydia's death. They argue and James leaves again.
Marilyn goes into Lydia room and finds her old cookbook, the one Lydia said she had lost. Nath leaves and drinks until he pukes. He's escorted home by an officer.
Narration jumps backwards to when Nath is doing his campus visit. Lydia sees that Hannah is wearing her silver necklace, lashes out and hits her. Then, more gently, she tells her not to wear it. (She doesn't think Hannah should try to force herself fit in either. )
Lydia calls Nath. He doesn't have time for her and mocks her frustrations, before hanging up. Upset, Lydia tries to be intimate with Jack, but he says no. He tells her he cares about Nath. Lydia lashes out at Jack and they exchange some harsh words.
Lydia goes to the dock to think. She decides she should apologize to Jack and Nath. She will talk to her mother and tell her to back off. She needs to tell her dad to allow her to be who she is.
She rows out and decides to swim back, though it's a little far. (The implication is that she is unable to make it back, but she wasn't trying to kill herself on purpose.)
Narration returns to present-day. James realizes he's making a mistake goes home. Marilyn accepts it and from that point on James never speaks to Louisa again.
Nath wakes up, still a little drunk. He sees Jack outside, headed for the lake and goes to confront him. Hannah begs him not to and runs after him. Nath starts hitting Jack before Jack can say much. Hannah finally shoves Nath into the water to stop him.
When Nath emerges from the water, Jack holds out his hand to help him up. They eventually sort things out. The book closes with the implication that Nath and Jack eventually get together ("when, one day, he looks at the small bump that will always mar the bridge of Jack’s nose and wants to trace it, gently, with his finger.")
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