Days before Lydia’s death, Nath is desperate to leave Middlewood. As he packs for his campus visit, he also mentally organizes his belongings, picking what he will take when he enrolls at Harvard later in the year. The Lees do not travel; they once went to Gettysburg and Philadelphia, but they attracted so many stares that it was the last trip they ever took. Nath opens Lydia’s door and asks her to choose between two shirts, one of which he’s bought recently. He explains that there will be a visiting students mixer on campus, and that his host will be throwing an end-of-semester party. When Nath tries on the new shirt, Lydia is stunned by how good he looks, yet tells him to wear the other one.
In this passage, travel is presented as both a threat and opportunity. Leaving Middlewood gives Nath the chance to detach himself from his family and all their problems, and to reinvent himself as a new, unencumbered person. However, the trip to Pennsylvania illuminates the alienation and even danger that the Lees risk in traveling around the country as a mixed-race family.
Later that night, Lydia goes into Nath’s room, wanting to tell him about Louisa. She sees Nath on the floor, staring out at the night sky. He invites Lydia to sit next to him, and the two gaze up together, awestruck. The next morning, Lydia asks Nath to promise that he’ll call to let her know how it’s going. Nath promises as he rushes out the door, but the weekend passes and he doesn’t call. Meanwhile, Hannah follows Lydia around, suggesting things for them to do together. On Sunday afternoon, Hannah suggests that they go to the lake, and Lydia suddenly notices that Hannah is wearing her silver locket. Hannah quietly confesses that she thought Lydia didn’t want it. Remembering the words James said as he gave it to her, Lydia slaps Hannah and yanks the necklace from her neck. She tells Hannah softly that Hannah doesn’t want the necklace even if she thinks she does, and that she should never smile if she doesn’t want to.
This passage highlights Lydia’s liminal position between childhood and adulthood, which is further accentuated by the fact that she is a middle child. Around Nath, Lydia is very much a shy, deferential younger sibling; she craves Nath’s attention and approval in the same way that Hannah craves hers. However, Lydia’s interactions with Hannah in this scene reveal a new, more adult side to her. Lydia is determined that Hannah not succumb to the same pressures that James and Marilyn place on Lydia herself. She takes on a kind of parental role to Hannah as a form of protection against their real parents.
That evening, Lydia calls Nath’s host at Harvard; when someone picks up the phone, she can hear the sounds of a party in the background. When Nath gets on the phone, Lydia suddenly tears up, but Nath is rude and dismissive, clearly annoyed by her call. He taunts her about the possible reasons she could be calling, and Lydia is struck by the feeling that Nath has already become a “stranger.” Eventually, Nath bitterly suggests that Lydia speak to Jack about her problems and hangs up. Although he will later be haunted by those words, at the time he returns to the party, feeling happily detached from his family. Back at home, Lydia feels a sense of anger building within her. Nath has changed, and so has Lydia—she wants to hurt him, the same impulse that caused her to slap Hannah.
Nath’s sudden coldness and cruelty to Lydia reflects his feeling that he needs to make an absolute break with his family in order to be free of them. This echoes Marilyn’s decision to disappear without telling her family, and to call them every day without saying anything. Nath’s attention is entirely focused on creating a new life for himself at Harvard, and Lydia’s phone call is a highly unwanted interruption to that goal. After years of providing support to Lydia, Nath suddenly switches course in order to free himself from the oppressive clutch of his family.
On Monday morning Lydia wears lipstick and a beautiful dress James bought for her. At the breakfast table, James tells her “all the boys will be after you now,” and Marilyn reminds her to come straight home after school because Nath will be back. That afternoon, Lydia suggests to Jack that they drive up to the Point, a spot overlooking Middlewood where teenagers often drive to have sex. In the car, Jack asks about Nath, wondering if Lydia has missed him and whether he’ll come back from Harvard for the holidays. Lydia only replies “who cares,” and opens the glove compartment to retrieve the box of condoms. Jack is surprised, but Lydia assures him she won’t regret it and kisses him. She wants to be “transformed” by the time Nath returns home and she wants “something new to tell him.”
Now that Nath is about to leave for college, Lydia associates her own innocence and childishness with distance from her brother. She seems to think that if she loses her innocence by having sex with Jack, this will somehow bridge the gap between her and Nath. In reality, not only will having sex do nothing to change the fact that Nath is going to college, but Nath also hates Jack and thus is unlikely to feel closer to Lydia as a result of knowing she’s had sex with him. However, Lydia is so desperate to prevent Nath’s inevitable departure that her mind is driven to irrational solutions.
Jack pulls away from Lydia and looks at her with kindness, but without lust. Hurt, Lydia asks if she’s not good enough for him. Jack replies that the problem is Nath, and when Lydia tells him Nath doesn’t matter, Jack replies “he matters to me.” Lydia is shocked, and Jack gently explains that his reputation as someone who sleeps with lots of girls is designed to crush any suspicions about his sexuality. Lydia remembers all the times Jack brought up Nath and is stunned by how “stupid” and “wrong” she could have been. Jack apologizes, and Lydia responds that she is sorry for him, because he is “in love with someone who hates you.” Jack is clearly hurt, and says that at least he knows what he wants and doesn’t let other people boss him around. Lydia threatens to tell Nath and the whole school about Jack’s feelings, and before Jack can stop her she gets out of the car.
Lydia’s reaction to Jack’s revelation illustrates the ways in which—despite her best efforts—she is still childishly self-centered. Rather than feeling sympathy for Jack’s inner turmoil or his fear of homophobia, she focuses only on how Jack’s love for Nath affects her personally. To Lydia, Jack’s love is something else Nath has “won” at her expense (even though this makes little rational sense, especially considering that Nath hates Jack). Furthermore, Lydia further torments Jack by reminding him that his love for Nath is unrequited and by threatening to tell others about it—an act of startling cruelty.
Lydia runs home and finds Marilyn sweeping the porch. Marilyn suggests that they study for Lydia’s exams together, but Lydia snaps that she doesn’t need her mother’s help. Surprised, Marilyn replies that “there’s not much time left” before exams begin. At dinner, Nath talks excitedly about his visit to Harvard and James occasionally joins in with nostalgic remarks about Cambridge. Lydia, meanwhile, barely notices the conversation taking place around her. She fixates on Jack, wondering where everything went wrong. At 2am, she is suddenly seized by the impulse to go to the lake. Sitting on the dock, she reflects that this is the closest she’s been to the water since Nath pushed her in. She realizes that Jack was right; she is afraid of everything, so desperate to please her mother and keep the family together that she has destroyed her own chance at happiness. She’d always been afraid of losing Marilyn and James, and now she is afraid of losing Nath, “who had always kept her afloat.”
Filled with regret, Lydia blames herself for always saying “yes” to her mother and thereby ruining her own life. However, she is also intent on isolating a single moment in which everything in her life went wrong, and eventually she determines that it was when Nath pushed her into the lake. Of course, in reality there is no single moment to blame, but rather an accumulation of thousands of tiny decisions, actions, and events. However, as with Nath’s departure, Lydia is desperate to find some sense of control over the events of her life. She fantasizes that by returning to the lake, she will somehow be able to undo all the terrible things that she believes originated there.
The day Nath pushed her into the lake was also the day that Lydia first realized how “suffocating” it was to be loved as her parents loved her. She had even felt a perverse sense of gratitude for being plunged into the water. However, Nath’s hands helping her out had then seemed like a wonderful sense of reassurance; ever since then, Lydia thinks, Nath has been helping her not to drown. Lydia promises herself that from now on, she will stop lying to her family to make them happy and pretending to be someone she’s not. She will tell Marilyn “it’s not too late,” will apologize to Jack, and tell Nath that he doesn’t need to worry about leaving her. Lydia decides she must “seal her promises,” and gets into the boat. She expects to feel nervous, but instead feels peaceful and confident. She rows out and looks at the water, feeling certain that she will be able to swim back to shore as long as she kicks, just like Nath told her. She plans to ask Nath all about Harvard the next day. She tells herself “it will be alright” and jumps into the water.
Although we might expect the description of Lydia’s final moments to provide resolution to the question of how and why she dies, this passage is in fact mysterious and inconclusive. As in previous scenes, Lydia is acting in an irrational manner; desperate to assert control over her life, she decides that she must return to the lake and re-submerge herself in the water in order to fix her mistakes and begin again. In this sense, Lydia seeks a rebirth similar to the spiritual rebirth of Christians who are baptized or “born again” through being submerged in water. However, it is unclear where her sudden confidence in her own ability to swim comes from. Why does she throw herself so willingly into the water when it is objectively likely that she will drown?