The narrator claims that everything began with Lydia’s parents and their own parents before them. Marilyn herself had once disappeared and she had always wanted to “stand out,” whereas James wanted to “blend in”—both of which turned out to be impossible. In Marilyn’s first year at Radcliffe in 1955, a professor asks why she wants to take physics, and Marilyn explains it is because she wants to be a doctor. The professor asks if Marilyn doesn’t really want to be a nurse. However, Marilyn was the top of her high school class in physics on every test, and based on these grades the professor allows Marilyn to “try chemistry—if you think you can handle it.” In the lab, Marilyn is the only girl and is constantly harassed by men who insist on helping her with the experiments; however, by the middle of term she is once again at the top of the class.
Like Chapter 1, Chapter 2 opens with a mysterious claim, that Lydia’s disappearance is connected to her family history. However, at this stage the connection between Lydia’s family and her disappearance is unexplained, as is the connection between Marilyn’s desire to “stand out,” James’ desire to “blend in,” and the prejudice Marilyn experienced as a female student of science. What is clear is the connection between the prejudice Marilyn experiences as a woman and the prejudice James experiences as a Chinese-American professor at Middlewood College.
In high school, Marilyn had asked her principal if she could take shop instead of home economics. Home ec was required of all sophomore girls, and Marilyn’s mother, Doris Walker, was the teacher. Marilyn had been at the top of her class since sixth grade, but the principal still denied her request, telling her that she would find the shop equipment difficult to use and that she would be a “distraction” to the boys in the class. In home ec, Marilyn sulks and thinks about the phrase “keeping house.” When Marilyn was three, her father left, but her mother continued to wear makeup at all times and changed outfits before dinner “even though there was no husband to impress.” Marilyn purposefully messes up all her home ec assignments, and her mother warns her that she knows she is trying to “prove” something but that she will fail her daughter anyway.
Both Marilyn and her mother excel at what they do—Marilyn is a perfect student with a natural aptitude for academics, and Doris is an elegant, accomplished housewife who looks picture-perfect at all times. However, the extreme contradiction in the two women’s ideas of success creates an unbridgeable tension between them. Marilyn is so determined not to fulfill her mother’s ideal that she purposefully aims to receive a bad home economics grade. This act suggests that rebelling against one’s parents can sometimes risk turning into an act of self-sabotage.
Doris grew up eighty miles from Charlottesville and has never left her hometown. When Marilyn is admitted to Radcliffe, Doris tells her daughter how proud she is and assures her that she will meet “a lot of wonderful Harvard men.” It always bothers Marilyn that her mother ended up being right about this. At Radcliffe, Marilyn remains intensely dedicated to her academic work, stimulated by the vision of herself in a doctor’s white coat. She is determined to make a life for herself that doesn’t resemble her mother’s in any way. However, in the beginning of her junior year she meets a man, “just as her mother predicted.”
Marilyn is disdainful of her mother’s comment about Harvard men on account of the fact that Marilyn wants to live a life that is impressive in its own right, not because it is oriented around a man. However, Marilyn’s irritation ignores an important truth—the fact that Doris herself no longer has a man in her life. Whereas Marilyn seems set up to have both an impressive career and a husband, Doris is left with neither.
Marilyn sits in the lecture theatre of a popular new course called “The Cowboy in American Culture.” The instructor is listed as James P. Lee, a fourth-year graduate student whom Marilyn expects to be Southern. However, when James walks into the room Marilyn is surprised to find that he is “Oriental.” She has never seen an Asian person before and she is entranced by him. To Marilyn, James looks like “a little boy playing dress-up.” She is surprised to hear that his accent is entirely American, unlike the racist stereotypes she has heard about how Chinese people speak. The students begin to leave, and one of them shouts “Yippee-ki-yay-ay!” as he walks out of the door. Although James does not seem to have noticed, Marilyn is desperately embarrassed on his account and squirms in her seat.
Outside of her exceptional talent and dedication to science, Marilyn has led a decidedly ordinary, small-town life. Her lack of experience of the wider world is made clear by the fact that she has never seen an Asian person before and thus only knows about Asian people through racist stereotypes. To some extent, her attraction to James can be understood as being based on his difference from anyone she has known before. Dissatisfied with the conventional world of her mother and her Virginia hometown, Marilyn is drawn to James as someone who “stands out.”
After the lecture, Marilyn goes to James’ office hours and nervously introduces herself. She explains that she is pre-med, and asks if history was his favorite subject in school. James asks Marilyn why she is there and she responds that she wants to apologize for the boys who shouted in lecture. As they talk, Marilyn notices that his eyes are brown and that he has the body of a swimmer. James tells her that his favorite subject in school was paleontology, and suddenly she leans over his desk to kiss him. During the next lecture, Marilyn blushes and avoids catching James’ eye. She’d “surprised herself” by kissing him, but had felt a sudden impulse to do it because she felt that James understood “what it’s like to be different.” Although he would never admit this to Marilyn, James had not noticed her during the first lecture; however, this is precisely what appeals to him about her—the fact that she “blended in so perfectly.”
Marilyn believes that she and James have a connection because of a shared trait—they are both “different.” However, James has a totally different impression of Marilyn; when he looks at her, he sees someone who fits into the Harvard-Radcliffe community. Both James and Marilyn feel an instant attraction to one another, but for totally different reasons. Furthermore, Marilyn likes something in James that he doesn’t like in himself, and vice versa. Thus, even though the beginning of their love story is pleasant and romantic, it nonetheless paves the way for future misunderstanding and miscommunication.
At the end of the second lecture, James asks to speak with Marilyn. He reminds her that he is her teacher, and that it would therefore be inappropriate for him to have a romantic relationship with her. Marilyn is embarrassed, and she thinks of her insistence that she did not come to Radcliffe to find a “Harvard man” but rather “for something better.” However, the next day Marilyn informs James that she has dropped the class, and soon they spend all their time together. Though James is outwardly reserved, Marilyn likes how she is able to make him feel at ease. Being with Marilyn makes James feel “at home” in a way that he has never experienced before. Although he was born in the United States and has never left, James has never felt accepted as an American.
As young people, both James and Marilyn have a very specific set of expectations of what they want out of life. Both want to achieve professional success, but, whereas James wishes to find social acceptance in American society, Marilyn wishes to be a pioneer as a female doctor. Although it is not quite clear to either of them yet, these ambitions are ill-fated and incompatible. Both James and Marilyn wish to fight against aspects of their identities that they cannot change (race and gender), which dooms them to eventual disappointment.
When James’ parents immigrated to the United States, they had to do so under a false identity, as all Chinese immigrants except the children of American citizens had been banned. While most Chinese immigrants settled in California, James’ parents moved to Iowa to work in the kitchen of a small boarding school. They were eager to take the position due to the fact that the children of school employees could attend the school for free if they passed the entrance exam. In hindsight, James realizes that the school had no intention of admitting the students of the children of unskilled employees, who they assumed would not have a chance of passing the entrance exam. However, at only six years old James was exceptionally gifted and a voracious reader, and thus he passed the exam. James was the first Asian student to attend Lloyd, and he was harassed and bullied by the other students. He avoided his parents, unsuccessfully trying to pretend that he was like everyone else.
The story of James and his family is a marked contrast to more positive narratives of immigration and the American dream. On the surface, James’ parents have achieved exactly the kind of life that immigrants to the United States dream of—both have secure jobs that allow their son to receive a prestigious education. However, this superficial narrative masks the reality of James’ life, which is defined by a constant sense of alienation. Rather than being welcomed into the “melting pot” of America, James is made to feel ashamed of his race and the fact that his parents are low-skilled workers.
James attends Lloyd for 12 years, yet fails to make any friends. He hopes his social life will improve at Harvard, but it does not; after 7 years as an undergraduate and then graduate student, James still has no friends and he feels like an imposter. This changes, however, when he meets Marilyn. On the first afternoon they spend together in bed at his apartment, he feels that their bodies fit together “as if they were two halves of a mold.” James loves Marilyn’s “honey-colored” hair and her “easy laugh.” However, he worries that he has been too lucky in finding her and he fears that she will “disappear.” James cuts his hair and buys clothes he thinks Marilyn will like, and the two of them paint his apartment yellow.
Marilyn helps to ease James’ feelings of being an outsider. To him, she symbolizes all of American society embracing him and finally making him feel welcome. However, this is clearly too much pressure to place on one person, and thus James fears the prospect of Marilyn disappearing. Although this accurately foreshadows the events that take place later in their lives, Marilyn does not disappear for the reasons James imagines. James’ irrational fears turn out to be accurate, but not in the way he initially believes.
At Thanksgiving, Marilyn decides not to go home. She claims that it’s too far, but, in fact, she worries about what she would (or wouldn’t) tell Doris about her relationship with James. Marilyn explains to James that Doris is a home ec teacher and that “Betty Crocker is her personal goddess.” James has told Marilyn that his parents worked at a school, but failed to specify that they were cafeteria workers. He stopped speaking Chinese to his parents in the fifth grade due to his fear that it would taint his American accent. He tells Marilyn that his parents are dead, which is true. Both of them have a kind of pact not to ask too many questions of each other.
Even at the honeymoon stage of James and Marilyn’s romance, their relationship is dominated by secrets, dishonesty, and silence. This is not necessarily because the two don’t trust each other, but rather because of all the ways in which their relationship—and they themselves—are at odds with the world around them. While James is ashamed of the fact that his parents are working-class immigrants, Marilyn wishes to keep a distance between herself and her highly traditional mother.
In the spring, James waits to hear if he will be hired into Harvard’s history department. The head of the department has hinted that James is at the top of his graduate class, and, although James has interviewed for positions at other Ivy League schools, he feels confident that he will be hired at Harvard. Meanwhile, Marilyn makes plans to attend medical school, calculating how far each university will be from James in Cambridge. However, in April James is told he has not been given the position at Harvard, and he is forced to accept a job at “humble Middlewood College” instead. Meanwhile, Marilyn is pregnant, and, because of that, she plans to marry James instead of heading to medical school. She reassures James that the baby will be “so much better” than their original plan, although she secretly tells herself that when the child is older, she will finish her studies and become a doctor.
Both James and Marilyn’s ambitions have been significantly disrupted, but this does not at first register as a disaster. They reassure each other that their dreams are still in reach, but that their lives will simply take a slightly different course. However, there is an important difference between what Marilyn and James say out loud to one another and what they are privately thinking. Both are under pressure to embrace this new turn of events, which leads them to hide their true feelings from one another. As the rest of the narrative reveals, this duplicity and secrecy comes to have a devastating impact on their relationship.
Marilyn phones Doris and tells her that she and James are getting married. She explains that James is just finishing his PhD in American history, and her mother is thrilled. Marilyn feels relieved, thinking that she has “done just what her mother had hoped.” She explains that the wedding will be a small ceremony; Doris leaves Virginia for the first time to attend. When James and Marilyn meet Doris at the train station, Doris looks at James in shock. That night at dinner, Doris asks Marilyn if she’s sure James isn’t using their marriage to get a green card. Marilyn, furious, tells her mother that James was born in California.
Although Marilyn abhors Doris’ ideas and expectations of what her daughter’s life should involve, she still wishes to please Doris on some level. When it seems that Doris will approve of her marriage to James, Marilyn is thrilled—only to be heartbroken when Doris’ happiness turns to disapproval. Doris, who is invested in maintaining the appearance of pleasantness, does not express her racist views outright, but rather mentions them in an indirect (though equally offensive) way.
On the day of the wedding, Doris takes Marilyn aside to “touch up [her] lipstick.” Doris is already upset that Marilyn is wearing a cream dress instead of a white one and that the ceremony is not at a church. She tells Marilyn “it’s not right” and says that she will regret marrying James. She urges Marilyn to think of her future children, saying “you won’t fit in anywhere.” Marilyn storms out of the bathroom, and when James asks what’s wrong she replies with a laugh that Doris wants her to marry “someone more like me.” Marilyn kisses James, thinking that her mother is being ridiculous. Only days before, Richard and Mildred Loving were married in Virginia, and in four months they will be arrested for breaking miscegenation laws. James and Marilyn’s wedding takes place. It is the last time that Marilyn ever sees her mother.
One of the main ideas in the book is that, no matter how much people try to rebel against their parents, there is always an extent to which everyone fulfils their parents’ expectations, fears, and desires (whether they want to or not). On one level, Marilyn fulfils her mother’s dream that she will marry a “Harvard man” and become a housewife. At the same time, her mother’s racist assumption that Marilyn’s mixed-race family will not “fit in anywhere” also turns out to be correct. Try as they might to resist, many people’s fates are predetermined by their parents.