Lydia is dead, but her family does not yet know this. It is May 3, 1977 and, at 6:30 am, Lydia has not shown up for breakfast. Lydia’s mother Marilyn has marked Lydia’s physics homework and placed it next to her bowl of cereal; Marilyn’s husband James is already on the way to work. At home, Lydia’s brother Nath yawns, and Lydia’s sister Hannah remarks that Lydia is slow to come downstairs. Marilyn goes up to look in Lydia’s room, and finds everything in its place but no sign of Lydia. Marilyn blinks, hoping Lydia will suddenly appear, but she does not. Back downstairs, Nath remarks that he heard Lydia’s radio playing at 11:30 the night before, and Hannah asks if it’s possible to get kidnapped at 16. When Marilyn reenters the kitchen, for a moment Nath thinks it is Lydia, even though Lydia’s hair is black and Marilyn’s is blond. “Defying genetics,” however, Lydia has blue eyes, which is part of the reason why she is both of her parents’ favorite child.
Opening the book with a character’s mysterious disappearance is a classic trope of the thriller genre. There is a notable contrast between the innocent, ordinary scene of the family eating breakfast together and Lydia’s sinister absence. This contrast builds tension and suspense. At the same time, particular details give a subtle insight into Lydia’s life, such as the fact that her mother has left her marked physics homework next to her breakfast, the description of her blue eyes, and the comment that she is her parents’ favorite. Although it is not yet clear how, these details are related to Lydia’s disappearance and death.
The family sees that the car is still in the driveway, though this doesn’t tell them much, as last week Lydia failed her driver’s test. It is now 7:30 in the morning and Hannah asks if they should still go to school. Marilyn instructs Nath to drive them there, and she assures her children that she will figure out what’s happened to Lydia. After Nath and Hannah have left, Marilyn thinks of a time when Lydia was a baby and she burned her hand on the stove while Marilyn had her back turned. Marilyn remembers looking at Lydia and thinking, “What else have you been hiding?” She did not realize that her daughter could walk, and it shocked her that Lydia already had “secrets.”
Marilyn’s recollection of the incident when Lydia burned her hand as a baby further raises suspense over what has happened to her daughter. Marilyn’s reaction to seeing Lydia walk is strangely accusatory, as if the very fact that Lydia can walk is a secret that she has been sneakily “hiding” from her mother. At the same time, Lydia’s sudden disappearance undoubtedly indicates that there is indeed something Marilyn doesn’t know about her daughter.
Marilyn calls the secretary at Lydia’s high school to ask if Lydia is there. Though she is tenth grade, Lydia’s first course of the day is an eleventh-grade physics class. While Marilyn waits, she thinks of a little girl who went missing a few years ago and was found suffocated inside a storage shed. After this happened, local parents were advised to check tight spaces and call the police immediately if they discovered their children were missing. The school secretary tells Marilyn that Lydia is not in class. Marilyn hangs up without replying.
Lydia is 16, and thus it is somewhat strange that Marilyn compares her case to that of a little girl who accidentally got stuck in a storage shed. The likelihood of that happening to someone Lydia’s age is small, and this suggests that Marilyn still thinks of her daughter as younger and perhaps more innocent than she really is.
Marilyn searches the house and thinks of a girl from her school who, when she was 12, disappeared and was found raped and strangled by the side of the road. Her mind jumps to famous murder cases that are currently dominating the media. Marilyn tries to reassure herself that “things like that don’t happen here,” “here” meaning the small college town of Middlewood, Ohio. Only 3,000 people live in Middlewood, and Marilyn thinks that even Middlewood Lake is “really just a glorified pond.” The narrator corrects her, emphasizing that the lake is both large and deep. Marilyn keeps looking through the house but finds nothing, and she dials James’ phone number.
There are multiple ways in which Marilyn’s beliefs about Middlewood do not match reality. First, her claim that “things like that don’t happen here” is intrinsically false; violence happens everywhere, even in the smallest and seemingly safest communities. Marilyn also perceives the lake as being smaller (and hence safer) than it really is. The narrator’s correction of her misperception suggests that the lake will play a significant—and perhaps sinister—role in the story.
So far, James’ day is still normal; he is sitting at his desk marking a student’s poorly-written essay for an introductory course. As each summer approaches, students begin to make less effort, and James feels frustrated. He’s 46 and tenured, but he is still sometimes not recognized as a member of faculty. Still, he finds some pleasure in surprising people with the fact that he’s a professor of American history. Louisa Chen, one of James’ graduate teaching assistants, enters and tells him that the papers she has just graded were also of poor quality. From the back, she looks like Lydia, although Louisa’s eyes are brown, not blue. She is the first Asian student that James has ever taught, which excited him when he first met her. However, when Louisa saw a photo of James’ family on his desk, she commented on the fact that Marilyn was not Chinese. James was disappointed—everyone else pointed this out, but he thought Louisa would be different.
Although James has a successful career, he remains frustrated and marginalized by the prejudice he experiences both in his professional and personal life. Despite having been born in America and having graduated from both a prestigious prep school and Harvard, James is perceived as an unqualified or illegitimate figure to be a professor of American history. Meanwhile, white people and even Lydia find it inappropriate that James is married to a white woman. No matter what James does, because of his race he will always be seen as an outsider in American society.
Louisa remarks that the undergraduates in the course they are teaching don’t know much about geography, and James responds, “Well, this isn’t Harvard.” Louisa reassures him that he shouldn’t blame himself and that he is not wasting his life. James asks Louisa to stand still as he pulls a ladybug from her hair. At this moment, Stanley Hewitt enters and James, who hates him, bristles. Stan says he hopes he “isn’t interrupting anything,” and Louisa exits, blushing. James feels a violent surge of anger at Stan, which he lets out by crushing the ladybug. The narrator remarks that this is the last second of “ignorant calm” before much greater problems arise. At that moment, Marilyn calls and asks James to come home.
This scene demonstrates James’ intense feelings of bitterness about the world around him. His mention of Harvard evokes the fact that he completed his undergraduate and graduate studies there and was hoping to be hired as a professor in the history department, but he was ultimately rejected. He considers Middlewood and the people associated with it (such as Stan) to be unintelligent and aggravating. James’ relationship with Louisa is a contrast to this bitterness, and there are romantic overtones to their exchange.
The police tell James and Nath that lots of teenagers run away from home, and that often teenage girls are angry with their parents without their parents realizing. Nath watches one of the officers touch Lydia’s “Baby Soft” perfume “as if cupping a child’s head.” The officers advise them that most teenage girls come home of their own accord within 24 hours. Suddenly, Officer Fiske remembers that Marilyn went missing 11 years ago and asks James to confirm if this is correct. James, embarrassed, replies that this was only a “miscommunication” and a “family matter.”
There is a tension between ideas of innocence and guilt in this scene. On the one hand, Lydia’s “Baby Soft” perfume creates an impression of her as a totally innocent, youthful victim. At the same time, the police suggest that Lydia may have been angry with her parents and thus may have disappeared on purpose. This theory is arguably given more credibility by Officer Fiske’s mention of Marilyn’s disappearance.
Downstairs, Hannah shows the policeman a photo from the past Christmas. Lydia was in a bad mood and Nath tried to cheer her up, but it didn’t work, and Lydia is scowling in the picture. James tells the officers to use a different photo, so people don’t think Lydia “looks like that all the time.” James chooses a photo of Lydia from her 16th birthday; she is wearing lipstick and “looks like a model… having an improbably good time.” James says they will make a flyer if she doesn’t return by tomorrow, and that he is sure everything will be fine. Marilyn insists that Lydia would not have run away of her own accord, and asks worriedly if there’s “some psycho kidnapping girls.” Officer Fiske reassures her that this is highly unlikely and that in almost every case girls come home by themselves.
Already it is becoming clear that both James and Marilyn are in a state of denial about their daughter’s true nature. Rather than using the photo Hannah suggests, James chooses one that shows Lydia as more glamorous and happy than she truly was. Meanwhile, Marilyn refuses to believe it is possible that Lydia chose to run away, even though this is statistically far more likely than the possibility that she was abducted by a “psycho.” While what really happened is still unclear, the tension between James and Marilyn’s opinions and those of the police suggests that the truth may be difficult to uncover.
The police leave, after instructing James and Marilyn to write a list of Lydia’s friends who might be able to help them discover where she is. Nath says nothing, but he knows these girls are not Lydia’s friends. They sometimes spend hours with Lydia on the phone, but Nath knows this is only because they want Lydia’s help with their homework. The only person Lydia has actually been spending time with is Jack Wolff, a boy who lives with his mother, Janet, on the same street as the Lees. Jack and Lydia drive around in his car while Lydia pretends to be at school. When Marilyn disappeared years before, Jack “humiliated” Nath; after Marilyn’s return, Janet is still divorced and Jack continues to “run wild.” Nath says nothing of Jack and Lydia’s friendship because he doesn’t want to admit that it is real.
James and Marilyn’s impression of Lydia’s life is being rapidly exposed as wildly inaccurate. Already it is clear that Lydia’s parents believe that her life is much happier and more innocent than is really the case. Yet, although Nath knows more about the reality of Lydia’s life, he too refuses to openly acknowledge this truth. In different ways, all members of the Lee family are invested in maintaining the appearance of happiness and normalcy, even if this obstructs their chances of finding Lydia.
James calls each of the friends on the list, but none of them have any idea where Lydia might be. Hannah sits under the table and touches Nath’s toe with her own, but he doesn’t react. James finishes calling the last friend, Karen Adler. Lydia talks about Karen all the time, and James used to hear her gossiping on the phone to Karen and her other friends. However, he is now becoming increasingly doubtful that Lydia’s claims of spending time with these girls are true. James calls Officer Fiske and tells him that no-one Lydia “knows from school” has any idea where she is; Fiske tells him they will send an officer to look for Lydia. Dinnertime comes, but the family doesn’t eat anything. James tries to stay cheerful, but is unconvincing.
The image of Hannah sitting under the table ignored by her family becomes a visually symbolic representation of the older Lees’ ability to ignore things they do not wish to acknowledge. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly impossible for James to ignore the fact that he has a false impression of Lydia’s life. While the Lees make an effort to pretend that everything will be ok, the fact that they don’t eat dinner highlights the extent to which their normal lives have been dramatically disrupted.
Nath looks out his bedroom window at Jack’s house and plans to sneak out to find him. He thinks back on the night before, the last time saw Lydia. He’d just come back from a four-day campus visit to Harvard, where he’d been thrilled by his first taste of college life. On returning home, he’d asked Lydia how the past few days had been and she’d barely replied. Meanwhile, Hannah is reading The Sound and the Fury, which she’d stolen from Lydia a few weeks before. The book is annotated with Lydia’s notes from class, but only up until a certain point. The night before, Hannah had been lying in bed when she was awoken by a “soft thud” at 2am. She’d seen a slim figure walking across the front lawn and realized it was Lydia. Hannah imagined what life would be like if her sister left, how her parents favoritism of Lydia might transfer to Hannah. She thinks of her family’s distress at Lydia’s disappearance and how angry they would be if they knew Hannah didn’t stop her from leaving—but as Hannah had watched, she didn’t know where Lydia was going, or even really believe that she was leaving at all.
Both Nath and Hannah believe that they know more than the rest of the family about Lydia’s disappearance, yet so far, both have chosen to keep this knowledge to themselves. Nath’s theory that Jack is responsible is somewhat vague, based on Nath’s own prejudice against Jack. Hannah, meanwhile, doesn’t have a theory about Lydia’s disappearance but she does have concrete evidence that her older sister left the house voluntarily in the middle of the night. The fact that Hannah fails to share this information with her parents or the police might appear irresponsible and frustrating. However, a lifetime of being ignored seems to have made Hannah less trusting of the validity of her own opinions. Rather than expressing her thoughts and feelings, she chooses to remain silent.
On Wednesday morning, James calls Officer Fiske again, but there is no news. Hannah and Nath stay home from school, but the family finds it difficult to do anything—watch TV, read, or even vacuum. That afternoon, a passerby notices that the rowboat used by the community is sitting in the middle of the lake. At night, the police call to ask if Lydia has ever “played with” the boat. James responds decisively that she hasn’t; while James and Nath are both enthusiastic swimmers, Lydia refused to take lessons and has never gone more than ankle-deep in the lake. When James tells the police that Lydia can’t swim, the meaning of his words give him a chill. The next day, the police find Lydia’s body in the water.
In a different context, the discovery of Lydia’s body in the lake might point decisively to foul play. However, the clues about Lydia’s death given so far—the fact that Hannah saw her walk away from the house, the presence of the rowboat, and Lydia’s inability to swim—indicate that Lydia rowed to the lake voluntarily and alone. At the same time, this still leaves many questions unanswered. Why sneak out in the middle of the night? Why get in the rowboat, especially if she didn’t like swimming?