The summer that Marilyn disappears is the same summer that Lydia falls into the lake. The Lee family never talks about this summer, but they cannot escape its haunting legacy. Every morning while Marilyn is gone, James calls the police to see if he can do anything more to help. However, Officer Fiske gently points out that Marilyn packed suitcases and took her keys, which suggests that she left voluntarily. Because of this, there is little that the police can do. However, James tells his children that the police are looking for Marilyn and that they will find her soon. At school, the other children gossip about Nath and Lydia’s missing mother. Meanwhile, in reality, James knows that Marilyn left voluntarily; he found the scraps of her note in the trash and pieced it back together. He reads it ritualistically several times a day.
What is arguably most significant about James’ behavior after Marilyn’s disappearance is the way it mirrors Marilyn’s behavior after Lydia’s death. Both refuse to believe that the person who has disappeared went willingly, and they obsess over the small pieces of evidence left behind. Perhaps the disappearance of a family member inherently provokes this state of denial. On the other hand, there is also a distinct similarity between Marilyn and Lydia’s disappearances—both were escaping their lives.
When James and Marilyn married, they made a pact to “forget about the past.” Now that Marilyn is gone, James thinks about the past obsessively and is haunted by Doris’ opposition to their marriage. He reads Marilyn’s note again and again, hoping that it will eventually hurt less, though it never does. He lets the children fall asleep in front of the TV before taking them upstairs and returning to sleep in the living room himself. He fails to make the children’s sandwiches the way they like them. The family rarely leaves the house, and one day Nath begs to be taken to the lake. James refuses, saying he doesn’t want to “play lifeguard” to Lydia, who can’t yet swim. Nath angrily pinches Lydia’s arm and calls her a “baby.”
The consequences of Marilyn’s disappearance suggest that any attempt to forget the past will ultimately be fruitless. Even if people choose to remain silent and secretive about it, the past—and particularly the legacy of family—will always emerge and repeat itself in the present. Doris was left feeling purposeless and alone when Marilyn’s father left, and now Marilyn inflicts the same fate on her own family in an attempt to avoid inheriting her mother’s “small” life.
On the way back from a trip to the grocery store, Mrs. Allen waves to James and says she hasn’t seen him in a while. She asks after Marilyn, and James mentions that she is gone “indefinitely.” Inside, Nath asks what indefinitely means, and James urges him to forget what Mrs. Allen said, calling her a “silly woman.” He tells his children that Marilyn’s absence is no one’s fault, especially not theirs. The children know their father is lying. A month passes, and there is still no sign of Marilyn. One day, Nath spots Jack on the street. They haven’t spoken since the incident at the pool, but Nath feels desperately lonely and sits still as Jack walks over. Jack offers Nath candy, reassuring him that he’ll be ok. Jack says that Janet tells him children only need one parent and that if Jack’s dad doesn’t care enough to see him, “it’s his loss, not mine.” Nath, embarrassed and furious, spits out the candy and tells Jack to shut up.
Nath’s reaction to Jack’s attempt at solidarity and comfort highlights how certain people come to feel marginalized and excluded. Jack’s attempt at sympathy could have created a bond between the two boys based in their shared experience of having a parent leave the family. Nath might have been able to confide in Jack, expressing the feelings about Marilyn’s disappearance that he isn’t allowed to mention at home. Instead, Nath’s own feelings of shame and anger provoke him to reject and humiliate Jack. Thus both boys are left in an even more isolated situation than they were in to begin with.
A few days later, Nath is happily distracted by the launch of the Gemini 9. Nath is riveted and obsesses over the news coverage of the launch. He memorizes so many details about space travel that the reality of his own life fades from his mind. One Sunday, Nath asks James excitedly if he can believe that “people can go practically to the moon and still come back” and James slaps him. It is the only time that James ever hits one of his children, and after Nath runs out of the room James kicks the television to the ground. After this incident, Nath becomes even more committed to his passion for outer space.
There are multiple explanations for why James hits Nath in this scene. Although stated innocuously, Nath’s words are a hurtful reminder that, while people can now come back from the moon, Marilyn still hasn’t come back to her family. Perhaps James is also jealous that Nath has found an interest that distracts him from the reality of Marilyn’s absence while James himself is left obsessively rereading her note.
Lydia, meanwhile, is plagued by torturous nightmares. The only reminder of Marilyn in the house is the Betty Crocker cookbook, which Lydia reads “with the adoration of a devotee touching the Bible.” Two months after Marilyn’s departure, Lydia curls up under the dining table to read the book again. It is the 3rd of July, but Lydia and Nath both know there won’t be any celebrations the next day. Looking at the book, Lydia notices that there are bumps over the pages that must have been caused by teardrops. She suddenly feels a strong sense of guilt for Marilyn’s disappearance, and tells herself that when her mother comes back, she will do everything she asks.
The Betty Crocker cookbook is a symbol not only of the disconnect between Doris and Marilyn, but also the disconnect between Marilyn and Lydia. While Lydia clings to the cookbook as the only material reminder of her mother’s existence, the tears she sees on the page make her feel responsible for Marilyn’s disappearance. In both Lydia and Marilyn’s case, the words of the cookbook evoke a perfect, happy family, in contrast to which their own family appears decidedly inadequate.
In Toledo, Marilyn is studying in preparation for her Organic Chemistry midterm. To her surprise, the other students at the community college treat Marilyn just like one of them, and she is thrilled by this feeling that she fits in. At the same time, Marilyn is often distracted by intrusive thoughts of her family. She misses them so much that she regularly calls the house, although when James picks up she never says anything. James answers no matter what time it is, and the one time he doesn’t answer Marilyn panics and rings every five minutes until he does. Once, Nath picks up and Marilyn is desperate to speak to him, but she still says nothing. James doesn’t tell the police about these phone calls, and he has been growing increasingly irritated by his suspicion that Officer Fiske thinks it was “only a matter of time” before Marilyn left him. Meanwhile, Marilyn tells herself that her phone calls prove that her family is doing fine without her.
Marilyn’s time in Toledo is characterized by two totally oppositional sensations. On one end, she is living out a dream that she has been harboring since she was a child, and she is thrilled by the feeling that she still belongs in an academic community. The fact that she has gone from Radcliffe to community college does not seem to bother her, and her desire to work hard is as strong as ever. In this sense, everything has worked out just as she’d hoped. However, in the midst of this joy and success, Marilyn remains inescapably tethered to her family. Although she is physically alone and independent, she cannot emotionally separate herself from James and the children.
Marilyn feels a great sense of possibility in this moment, and she tries to dismiss thoughts of her family. However, while studying for the midterm she suddenly feels dizzy and faints. At first she thinks she’s caught a bug, and then she realizes that she has not had her period since leaving home. She thinks that she might just be hungry, and goes to the store to pick up some food. While there, she falls to the ground, spilling her groceries and cutting her hand. She then goes to the hospital, where a young blond woman treats her hand. Marilyn asks if the doctor shouldn’t be the one stitching her hand; the woman laughs and explains that she is the doctor. Marilyn is disappointed with her own prejudiced way of thinking. She confesses that she thinks she’s pregnant.
Although Marilyn tries hard to leave thoughts of her family behind, ultimately she realizes that she has taken her family with her in a way that she could not have imagined. Throughout this passage, Marilyn is alienated from her body, which seems to be rebelling against her desire to shut out thoughts of home in favor of concentrating on her education. While it is her body that takes her into the hospital, once again she is on the wrong side of the hospital bed—rather than treating patients, she is a patient herself.
The rest of Marilyn’s time at the hospital passes in a blur. Someone asks for her husband’s number, and Marilyn gives it unthinkingly. Suddenly James is there, holding her hand and telling her that the family has “missed her so much.” Marilyn comes to the realization that her educational dreams are over and that she has no choice but to go home. Furthermore, she knows that once she is home she will not be able to bring herself to leave again. With a heavy sense of defeat, Marilyn tells herself to accept that “this is it.” She leans her head against James and asks him to forgive her. James drives her back to Middlewood, anxiously checking on her throughout the journey.
Both Marilyn and James respond to the prospect of her return in an ambivalent way. James’ lack of anger is surprising; the unquestioning devotion and care he shows to Marilyn reflect a form of love traditionally more associated with femininity than masculinity. At the same time, his answer to Marilyn’s request for forgiveness is omitted, so the reader is left guessing how he reacted. Meanwhile, Marilyn seems to be simultaneously bewildered, upset, and relieved.
When they arrive home, Lydia and Nath are at the kitchen table. James announces, “Your mother’s home,” even though the children can plainly see her in front of them. Both the children stare at Marilyn, weeping silently. Marilyn asks them if they have been good. Upon finding out that her mother would be coming home, Lydia decided to hide the Betty Crocker cookbook, and now she tells Marilyn that she “lost it.” Marilyn puts her arm around Lydia, feeling proud of her; she thinks Lydia’s loss of the cookbook is a “sign” that her daughter will reject traditional femininity and she vows to support and encourage Lydia to fulfill her potential. James has ordered pizza, and the family begins to eat. Nath lets out a “deep, contented sigh,” thinking that his mother’s reappearance will mean the return of lavish dinners and hard-boiled eggs for breakfast.
Lydia and Nath’s silent tears suggest that their feelings about Marilyn’s return are too enormous—and perhaps too complex—for words. It is only when Nath’s thoughts latch onto ordinary, concrete matters (food) that he is finally able to feel a sense of relief and happiness. Lydia, meanwhile, evidently feels protective of her mother. Opening the Betty Crocker cookbook gave Lydia a markedly accurate insight into Marilyn’s mindset and her reasons for abandoning the family. Hiding the cookbook is an act that a parent would do for a child, not the other way around.
However, Nath was mistaken about the food. Marilyn refuses to cook, buying only pre-prepared food. At the same time, she starts grilling Lydia constantly on math equations, and Lydia starts counting everything: hot dogs, hugs, fireworks. Marilyn buys Lydia a stack of science books, which they enthusiastically read together. Lydia says “yes” to everything Marilyn suggests. Two weeks later, James and Marilyn drive to Toledo to collect Marilyn’s things, leaving the kids with Mrs. Allen. Nath is feeling upset; Marilyn refuses to let him participate in the scientific discussions and games, and she doesn’t seem to care about his interest in outer space. That morning, he’d asked Marilyn for a hard-boiled egg, and to his delight she’d said yes; however, as soon as Lydia came down and started telling Marilyn about her dreams, Marilyn forgot all about the egg. Meanwhile, James still teases him about his obsession with astronauts.
While Marilyn has physically returned to Middlewood, she still remains absent within Nath’s life. As a result of her own personal disappointment and single-minded obsession with Lydia’s academic success, Marilyn fails to even notice that Nath has also developed a strong interest in science. In this sense, Marilyn overcorrects the gender bias that both she and Lydia face and ends up ignoring and excluding her son based on his gender. This turn of events suggests that sometimes emotional “disappearance” and neglect can be even more painful than literal absence.
Mrs. Allen falls asleep in front of the TV and Nath heads outside. Lydia asks where he is going, before eventually following him. They walk out to the lake and Nath looks at the houses on the other side of the water, imagining that they are populated with perfect families. Lydia becomes anxious and says they should go home so they don’t get into trouble. Nath feels that everything in his life is “askew,” that it is all now focused on Lydia. He pushes her in the lake. As she disappears under the water, Nath feels completely alone, and in this moment he realizes that it doesn’t matter whether Lydia is physically present or not—his life will still “orbit” around her. As he jumps in to pull her out, he feels a great sense of relief and he realizes that Lydia fell too easily, that there was something about the lake that pulled her towards it. Back on the ground, Lydia vomits up lake water and takes Nath’s hand to pull herself up. They walk back to the house, where Mrs. Allen is still asleep, and they don’t tell anyone about what happened. Nath both pushed Lydia in and pulled her out, and each of their memories will always focus on a different side of the incident.
While it is still not clear how Lydia dies, this scene provides important new information about her death (as well as Nath’s reaction to the loss of his sister). As Nath gazes across the lake and imagines perfect families living on the other side, the lake comes to represent the mysterious force that stops the Lee family being perfect—the force that makes them “misfits” in a town of normal people. Nath’s feeling that Lydia is pulled into the lake highlights a sense of inevitability about her eventual death. It also evokes a connection between the family’s favoritism of Lydia (which Nath describes in physics terms, discussing gravity, imbalance, and orbit) and their inability to function as a harmonious and “normal” unit.
At Middlewood Elementary’s welcome-back picnic at the beginning of the school year, Nath and James enter the father-son egg race. They are in first place until Nath trips and breaks his egg before the finish line. Nath is relieved when James says it’s ok, but crushed when James then jokes that Nath would have won if only there’d been a reading contest. Nath is increasingly pained by his father’s teasing, and even James realizes that he’s being cruel. James is horrified by the way in which Nath increasingly resembles James as a child, and he cannot stop himself from teasing Nath even though he knows he should. Next, Lydia and Nath enter the three-legged race and they immediately come tumbling down. The handkerchief tying their legs together is too tight, and they cannot match each other’s stride.
The elementary school picnic seems innocent and harmonious, yet sinister and painful realities play out beneath the surface. Nath is not personally particularly invested in winning the father-son race; he simply doesn’t want his father to see him as a disappointment. However, James uses the frivolous occasion of the race to further bully Nath about his social and athletic inadequacy. Meanwhile, the handkerchief tied between Lydia and Nath symbolizes the extent to which the family is “tied” to Lydia, such that when she falls, she brings all the Lees crashing down with her.