Back when Lydia is five and Hannah is not yet born, Middlewood College has a Christmas party that Marilyn is reluctant to attend. For the first time, both of her children are at school; at only 29, she feels it is possible that she might return to her studies. At the same time, the idea of studying seems incompatible with the reality of her life as a wife and mother. She is irritated by the knowledge that her life turned out exactly how Doris wanted. James insists that they go to the Christmas party, as he is up for tenure and “appearances matter.” They ask a neighbor, Vivian Allen, to watch the children. At the party, Marilyn meets a chemistry professor named Tom Lawson; while he explains his area of focus, Marilyn asks if he needs a research assistant, explaining that she studied chemistry at Radcliffe and hopes to go to medical school. Tom is surprised, but says that as long as James doesn’t mind he would be happy to discuss it in the New Year.
The fact that Marilyn meets Tom Lawson at the Middlewood Christmas party is important. Marilyn is initially reluctant to go because the event forces her to play the role of “faculty wife,” thereby underlining the fact that she gave up her own education through her marriage to James. It is also a highly superficial event, as is made clear when James emphasizes that “appearances matter.” Although Marilyn’s conversation with Tom Lawson seems promising, Tom’s surprise at Marilyn’s interest in science and his insistence that they will have to ask James if he doesn’t mind are reactions that do not bode well for Marilyn’s ability to escape her role as a wife in order to return to academics.
James is not keen on the idea of Marilyn working for Tom; he thinks it will make it seem as if he is not earning enough himself. James assures Marilyn that when he gets tenure they’ll have “all the money they need,” but Marilyn secretly keeps Tom’s number. In April, Marilyn gets a call informing her that Doris has died. Marilyn has not spoken to her mother since her wedding day, and she never told Doris about the births of Nath or Lydia. When she tells James about Doris’ death, she makes it clear that she doesn’t want to discuss it. Marilyn drives to Virginia to pack up her mother’s house and arrange the burial. She is surprised by the extent to which Doris’ house still feels like home to her.
Doris’ death takes place during a pivotal time for Marilyn. Her children are in school and she has made preliminary arrangements to return to her own academic path. For the first time since her marriage, her original goal of becoming a doctor is once again in sight. In a way, Doris’ death ensures that, after eight years, Doris intrudes again on Marilyn’s life in order to shape her destiny. Even in death, Doris becomes a kind of ghost obstructing Marilyn’s ambitions.
Marilyn finds many photographs of herself as a child, but none of her mother. There is no evidence of Doris’ existence at all except her beloved Betty Crocker cookbook. Marilyn takes note of which passages her mother chose to underline, all of which instruct the reader on how to show people love through cooking. The book argues that all wives should know their husband’s preferred style of egg and that there is no “deeper sense of satisfaction” than having an organized, well-stocked kitchen. Marilyn feels an intense sense of pity for her mother, who wanted nothing more than to dedicate her life to her family, and who ended up alone. Marilyn feels “furious at the smallness of her mother’s life” and resolves that the cookbook is the only object in the house that she will keep as a memory of Doris.
Marilyn has a complex emotional reaction to the experience of searching through her mother’s belongings. She is clearly saddened by the extent to which Doris ended up isolated and alone, her one dream in life unfulfilled. On the other hand, Marilyn feels little (conscious) guilt over having ceased communicating with her mother. Instead, she blames the tragedy of her mother’s life on the fact that Doris chose the wrong ambition, one that—in Marilyn’s view—is inherently “small” and unfulfilling.
The next morning, Marilyn calls a company that will remove the rest of Doris’ belongings. Marilyn wonders where all of Doris’ things will go, and concludes that it is the same place that people go after death—“on, away, out of your life.” Once empty, the house no longer feels familiar to Marilyn. Driving home, Marilyn stops on the side of the road in West Virginia. She is haunted by the house’s empty rooms and the Betty Crocker cookbook on the seat next to her. She thinks of her own life and how it is “possible to spend so many hours cooking eggs,” each family member getting them in their favorite style. Marilyn steps out into the rain and promises that she will never become like her mother.
This scene emphasizes that Marilyn’s reaction to her mother’s death is somewhat selfish. Rather than focusing on any sense of loss or guilt over Doris, Marilyn fixates on her own life and its alarming similarity to her mother’s. While both Doris and her belongings have disappeared from Marilyn’s life, the legacy of Doris’ existence haunts Marilyn with an increasingly desperate intensity. Marilyn’s promise to herself suggests that she feels that if she doesn’t act now, it will be too late.
Back in Middlewood, James is unable to cook eggs properly for the children, who constantly ask when Marilyn is coming home. James takes Nath to the Y, leaving Lydia—who hasn’t yet learned to swim—with Mrs. Allen. James has been looking forward to spending time alone with his son and he dreams that in high school Nath will be the “star” of the swim team. James encourages Nath to swim with the other children; when Nath expresses reluctance to do so, James becomes angry. The only kid Nath recognizes is Jack, who is a strong and confident swimmer. James has heard Mrs. Allen gossiping about how Janet leaves Jack alone while she works at the hospital, but now he daydreams about Jack and Nath becoming best friends.
There is a distinct contrast between Nath’s shy reluctance to get in the water and Jack’s “cocky” confidence as a swimmer. This contrast extends to the parenting styles of James and Janet—where Janet is scorned in the neighborhood for leaving Jack alone, James plays an active part in encouraging Nath to join the other children in the water. This suggests that a “hands off” style of parenting may encourage children to feel a greater sense of confidence than the children of parents who actively push them toward certain ambitions.
James notices that Nath is “It” in a game of Marco Polo, but that the children are quickly deserting him and getting out of the pool. Nath is still calling out “Marco” when an older girl shouts, “Chink can’t find China!” James panics, wondering what he should do. At that moment, Jack shouts out “Polo!” and Nath swims toward him—yet when Nath sees that the other kids are out of the pool and Jack is smiling, he believes that Jack is taunting him and hurries out of the pool. In the locker room, Nath furiously kicks a locker while Jack looks on silently. James wants to hug and reassure Nath, telling him that he understands how he feels and that the same kind of thing happened to him at Lloyd. However, another part of James wants to slap his son, urging him to find a way to fit in.
It is painfully ironic that in hoping Nath does not experience the same isolation and alienation that he himself felt, James totally isolates and alienates his son. Not only does Nath feel excluded by the other neighborhood children, he does not feel comforted and supported within his own family. It is clear that James struggles with how to react to Nath being bullied; although from the outside it may seem obvious that he makes a cruel and counterproductive choice, reliving the experience of his own racist marginalization seems to paralyze James.
Back at home, James wants to comfort Nath but feels that telling him “it gets better” would be a lie. When Marilyn comes home, James dismissively tells her that Nath was teased by kids at the pool and that he “needs to learn to take a joke”—intentionally omitting any mention of the racist language. Nath, meanwhile, furiously asks his mother for a hard-boiled egg, which causes her to burst into tears. Marilyn remains in a terrible mood all day and refuses to cook anything, instead serving pre-prepared food. The next morning, she calls Tom Lawson and asks if he’d like to discuss working together. Tom admits that he assumed she wasn’t serious, given her family obligations, and that he has already hired an undergraduate. Without saying anything, Marilyn hangs up.
Each member of the Lee family has sunk into their own personal turmoil, and none is able to express their feelings to the others. James puts on a tough façade in order to conceal his sadness and disappointment over witnessing his son get bullied. Nath is humiliated and furious, and, in addition, he feels rejected by his father. Meanwhile, Marilyn is undergoing a secret crisis even more intense than that of her husband or son. Without expressing these negative feelings, they escalate beyond each of the characters’ control.
Marilyn gets in the car and starts driving away, telling herself she needs to “clear her head.” She circles the lake twice before driving through Middlewood to the hospital. She sits in the waiting room, watching the doctors and nurses hurry past. Janet emerges and Marilyn doesn’t recognize her until a nurse calls “Dr. Wolff.” Marilyn is astonished; she knew Janet worked in the hospital but she had assumed Janet was a secretary, not a doctor. Marilyn thinks of the Betty Crocker cookbook and asks herself how Janet has done it. She remembers that Janet doesn’t have a husband and thinks that if she, Marilyn, did not have a husband or children, then she might be a doctor now too. Tears stream down Marilyn’s face and Janet suddenly approaches, asking if Marilyn is alright. Marilyn assures her that she is fine.
Even though Marilyn feels that her own life has been ruined by traditional gender roles and sexism, she has the same instinctive sexist prejudices as the more narrow-minded members of her community. She is so shocked to see Janet in her role as a doctor that she experiences a jarring moment of misrecognition. This is not the only evidence that Marilyn has reached a breaking point, however. The very fact that she has driven to the hospital for no reason highlights the extent to which she is in a desperate state, and it foreshadows her approaching disappearance from her family.
The next night, Marilyn concocts an elaborate plan. She will take her mother’s savings and, after Doris’ house sells, the additional money from that. This will be enough to fund her for a year to finish her undergraduate studies, followed by four years at medical school. After dropping the children at school she drives to Toledo, enrolls at the community college, and signs a lease on a furnished apartment starting in two weeks’ time. Back in Middlewood, she rereads the Betty Crocker cookbook every night to remind herself of what she doesn’t want her life to be like. She tells herself that the children will be fine and she secretly packs up her college textbooks to bring with her. Marilyn makes a series of increasingly sumptuous meals and an enormous pink birthday cake for Lydia. She is amazed that no one has noticed the secret hiding beneath her cheerful smile.
It is somewhat remarkable that Marilyn is so capable of living out her normal life while concealing the enormous secret that she is about to abandon her family. On the other hand, throughout the novel, family life is shown to be characterized by secrecy, silence, and dishonesty. Is there any substantial difference between the secret Marilyn keeps and the secret of James’ affair or Lydia’s lie about her friendships? Perhaps what is most striking about this scene is Marilyn’s lack of guilt over what will happen to the children. Although she insists that they will be fine with James, this seems like wishful thinking.
That night, Marilyn tries to “memorize” James’ body as they have sex. James can tell something is wrong, and he tries to soothe her. The next morning, she keeps her eyes closed when James gets dressed, worried that she will cry again. She likewise avoids eye contact when kissing Nath and Lydia goodbye, but tells them to “be good.” After they go, Marilyn takes a barrette from Lydia’s room and a marble from Nath’s, along with a spare button from James’ coat. She is careful to choose things that they won’t miss, not wanting to “tear another hole” in their lives. She writes James a note telling him that she is not happy with her life and that it is not the life she imagined for herself. She says she knows they will be fine and asks for his forgiveness. However, she ultimately throws the note in the trash. When James gets home, he finds his children on the front step; Nath can only say one word: “gone.” Lydia, meanwhile, doesn’t say anything at all.
As Marilyn is about to leave, it becomes clear that her cold insistence that her family will be fine without her does not mean she lacks an emotional attachment to them. Rather, Marilyn’s commitment to her original ambitions and dissatisfaction with the life of a housewife simply overrides the bond she has with her family. This is an usual narrative; particularly in the 1970s, mothers were conventionally understood to hold an unbreakable sense of duty and attachment to their children, and thus even the behavior of Janet Wolff is treated as unnatural and suspicious. Yet, unable to find a way to combine her career ambitions and family, Marilyn is forced to choose between them.