Ten years pass; the world is shaken by dramatic political events, yet the Lees remain “bound” together by Lydia. James continues to be affected by incidents of racism, his despair only mitigated by the sight of Lydia’s blue eyes. Marilyn still refuses to cook a meal from scratch, but she delights in every opportunity to buy Lydia a new science book or help out with a school project. On each of these occasions, she checks to make sure that this is what Lydia really wants, and each time Lydia responds with an enthusiastic “yes.” Meanwhile, the world around them changes; Yale and Harvard admit women, and support for the Equal Rights Amendment gathers momentum. Marilyn fantasizes about seeing Lydia in a white doctor’s coat, “a ring of men awed at her deft handiwork.”
Neither James nor Marilyn puts pressure on Lydia in the traditional, draconian sense. They do not set especially strict rules for her or subject her to harsh punishments. Instead, both James and Marilyn project their own feelings of inadequacy and disappointment onto Lydia, hoping she will “save” them from their own fates. Yet while the pressure that Lydia’s parents place on her is much more subtle than old-fashioned strictness, it is arguably even more emotionally damaging.
Every evening at dinner James and Marilyn talk to Lydia at length about social and academic pursuits, before briefly turning Nath to ask how he is doing. Each time this happens, Nath panics, not wanting James to tease him about his interest in outer space and unable to think of anything else to say. While he is forced to hide his books and magazines “like pornography,” Nath is also relieved to be out of the spotlight of his parents’ attention, as he sees how miserable it makes Lydia. Meanwhile, Lydia keeps saying “yes” to her parents, going to the school dances and enrolling in college-level science classes while suppressing her true feelings. Hannah is quiet, forgotten about from the moment she joins the family.
This passage makes clear that both too much and too little attention can have a disastrous impact on children. Lydia is suffocated by the emotional pressure her parents place on her, yet is simultaneously isolated by being the favorite child. While Nath is saddened by his father’s teasing, he is at least free to pursue his own interests without hassle. Meanwhile, Hannah is so forgotten that the reader is left with little information about her.
It is now 1976. Lydia is 15 and will be dead in five months. She is failing physics and has only just scraped a passing grade in biology. Meanwhile, Marilyn boasts to Janet that Lydia is a “genius” and continues to plan ways for Lydia to skip ahead in science, a prospect James endorses, as it will give Lydia the opportunity to socialize with older students. Lydia hides her failing grades from her parents, and one of her teachers has threatened to call them himself if Lydia does not get her mother’s signature on her most recent failed test by the return from Christmas break. Lydia knows that the word “doctor” is the heartbeat of Marilyn’s life. She tries to forge Marilyn’s signature, but it is obviously a fake.
Although the cause of Lydia’s death remains a mystery, during this part of the novel there is a sense that sinister forces are building toward the dramatic climax of her body being found in the lake. Increasingly, Lydia’s life is shrouded in secrecy and dishonesty, and this disconnection from the truth is growing more and more unsustainable by the day. There seems to be little hope that James or Marilyn will change their ways, and thus it looks inevitable that they will push Lydia to a breaking point.
Under her mattress, Lydia has been hiding a letter informing Nath that he has been admitted to the Harvard Class of 1981. Nath has been checking the mail every day; focusing on his own future, he has grown increasingly unaware of Lydia’s struggles. Lydia recalls a moment in kindergarten when the most popular girl in her class invited Lydia to come to her house. At the time, Lydia responded by saying that her mother said that she had to come straight home after school, and the girl walked away laughing. Lydia had declined every social invitation throughout her childhood and teenage years, desperate to come straight home and see Marilyn. Throughout this time, Nath had been her only friend at school, saving her a seat on the bus and in the cafeteria. Lydia fantasizes that if she hides Nath’s letter from Harvard, he will have “no choice but to stay” in Middlewood with her.
This passage makes heartbreakingly clear the extent to which Lydia’s existence has been dominated by repression, secrecy, and lies. Lydia has effectively sacrificed her social life in favor of spending time with her mother—a choice produced by the constant anxiety that Marilyn will abandon her again. She is forced to pretend to her parents that she does have friends, and is in turn alienated from Nath by her parents’ attention. The decision to hide Nath’s letter highlights the fact that, despite being 15, Lydia remains childlike, perhaps stunted in maturity by her intense relationship with her parents.
When Nath’s guidance counselor asks him about his career plans, he whispers that he is interested in space “as if telling a dirty secret.” He fears that the counselor will laugh, but instead she gives him practical advice. Although Nath dreams of attending a science-focused university like MIT or Caltech, he knows that James will only approve of Harvard. Nath dreams of “leaving everyone behind,” including Lydia. At 15, Lydia wears lipstick to school to seem grown up, but her Baby Soft perfume means she still smells like a little girl. Over the years, Nath has felt inextricably bound to Lydia and has “absorbed her miseries,” but now he looks forward to drifting away from her, “untethered.” As Christmas approaches, Nath reasons that he must have been rejected from Harvard; he prepares to apply to other schools and secretly fears he will be stuck at home forever.
Burdened by Lydia’s unhappiness and James’ teasing, Nath longs to disappear and leave his family behind. Although he doesn’t acknowledge it consciously, this desire is a direct echo of Marilyn’s wish to escape the demands of her family through education. Over the years, Nath has supported Lydia, helping to shoulder her burden while juggling burdens of his own. Yet these years of support have created a sense of resentment inside him, such that he now wants to leave everything behind—including his beloved sister.
The doorbell rings—it’s Jack. He hands Nath an envelope, which was accidentally delivered to the Wolffs. Jack points to the seal, saying it looks like Nath will be headed to Harvard. Nath counters that it might be a rejection, and Jack shrugs and leaves. Nath opens the letter and is flooded with relief to see that he has been admitted. He smiles up at Hannah, telling her that he got in. James enters, puts a hand on his son’s shoulder and let’s out a strained “Not bad.” Marilyn is more enthusiastic, kissing her son’s cheek. Lydia watches from the top of the stairs, noticing James smile at Nath in a way he never has before. Just as Nath is about to shout up to tell her the news, Lydia exclaims that she is supposed to let Marilyn know she is failing physics.
This scene illustrates the way in which people can act in a cruel manner even if they do not have cruel intentions. Jack’s shrug seems callous and indifferent, when in fact he is upset at the prospect of Nath moving away. Similarly, James tries to be happy for his son, but after years of putting him down cannot find a way to earnestly express his feelings. Finally, Lydia does not wish to derail Nath’s happy moment out of jealousy or spite. Rather, she has been consumed by panic over how to tell Marilyn about physics, and sees this as her only chance.
At dinner, Marilyn interrogates Lydia, asking how she will feel if she is unable to find a job and ends up forced to become a housewife. Everyone forgets about Nath and his letter from Harvard. After dinner, Lydia says congratulations to Nath, adding: “I knew you’d get in.” But Nath is too angry to respond. Later, Lydia walks into the bathroom when Nath is brushing his teeth. Nath assumes that Lydia wants him to reassure her that everything will be ok, and he can see that she has been crying. However, he only spits angrily before walking out of the bathroom. In the morning, Marilyn pins up Lydia’s failed test in the kitchen. She spends the entirety of the next three days working with Lydia on physics problems. Lydia memorizes the answers to and waits for James to intervene, but he doesn’t. Only on Christmas morning does Marilyn finally unpin the test.
Just as Lydia feared, her world is unraveling. Not only is Nath about to leave, but he is now so angry that he refuses to even speak to her. At the very same moment, the truth about her academic performance has finally come out, and her parents’ reaction could not be worse. James, Marilyn, and Nath are all severely disappointed in Lydia, and none of them chooses to look beyond this disappointment in order to understand why Lydia has let them down or how she might be feeling. Instead, Lydia becomes trapped in a web of disappointment from which there seems to be no way out.
Lydia dreads receiving her mother’s Christmas gift. Usually, Marilyn gives Lydia books that she really just wants for herself and then proceeds to take them from Lydia’s room. Nath feels a hint of pity for his sister. Now that the news about Harvard has sunk in, it finally feels real that he will leave Lydia alone with their parents. He recalls memories of the two them acting as a “team,” protecting each other from their parents’ disapproval. Now Nath watches as James gives Lydia a present. Usually James leaves all the Christmas shopping to Marilyn, but it is clear he has picked this one personally. Lydia fantasizes that underneath the wrapping paper will be a necklace, a gift that tells her she is “perfect just as you are.” Instead, however, she finds three books: How to Win Friends and Influence People, Six Ways of Making People Like You, and Fundamental Techniques in Handling People.
Christmas morning at the Lee household is tragic almost to the point of comedy. All three children desire their parents’ unconditional love and approval above anything else, yet this (seemingly simple) desire proves continually elusive. In this scene it is also clear that James and Marilyn doom their children (and in particular Lydia) to failure due to the way in which their respective ideas of success clash so severely. Where Marilyn daydreams of Lydia burying her nose in physics textbooks and eschewing the role of wife and mother, James wants nothing more than for his daughter to be popular and “normal.”
James explains that the books are supposed to help Lydia “be popular.” Lydia tells James she has friends, even though she knows this isn’t true. James says he knows she does, but that “people skills” are especially important now that she is getting older. Lydia opens her other presents—as expected, her mother has given her more science books. Later, James asks her if she likes the self-help books. He begins telling her that he wishes he had them at her age, but instead says: “I thought you’d like it.” James has never mentioned his youth to Lydia, but she still senses the loneliness of that time. Lydia tells him she loves the books, but James can hear that she is lying and feels “foolish” for having bought them. When Lydia was 13, James encouraged her to call a girl from school to suggest they go roller-skating together. However, the girl told Lydia she was busy and abruptly hung up. Seeing that James was listening, Lydia faked a friendly conversation. Eventually, she made a habit of doing this, almost convincing herself these friends were real.
To the reader, it is devastatingly clear that if only Lydia and James were honest with each other, their relationship would be much less painful. Instead, Lydia pretends to have friends in order to make her father happy. James’ reasons for withholding the truth about his own past are more complex. To some extent, he seems to be concerned about being a positive role model for his children. However, overall the main issue seems to be that James simply finds it too painful to look back on his life before meeting Marilyn. The irony of this fact is that by refusing to admit his own vulnerability to Lydia, he leaves no room for her to be honest about her social difficulties with him.
Lydia reads How to Win Friends and Influence People, which advises her to be a good listener and let people spend most of their time thinking about themselves. Nath tries to apologize, but Lydia doesn’t feel like talking to him. Nath points his new camera at her, asking her to smile. Lydia looks up at him but remains deadpan as he takes the picture. Back at school, Jack shows up in Lydia’s junior physics class; he explains that he failed the course the year before, and it is required in order to graduate. He teases Lydia about not understanding the concept of failure, before she admits that she is also failing physics. Surprised, Jack reaches back and draws a small zero on Lydia’s knee, calling it their “secret membership sign.” All day, Lydia touches the zero, wondering if Jack really wants to be friends with her.
The photo of Lydia emphasizes the tension between appearances and reality. The books that James gives Lydia encourage her to force her way into friendships and popularity through manipulation of appearances, and it is comparatively easy to appear happy in a photo. However, Lydia is so unable to vocalize her unhappiness that she uses the photo as a rare opportunity to convey how she really feels—not by doing anything in particular, but instead by refusing to do what is asked of her for once. For a brief moment, Lydia is both autonomous and honest.
Lydia works hard, and at the end of January Marilyn checks in to see how physics is going. Lydia reports that things are much better, but Marilyn, not yet satisfied, encourages her to ask for an extra credit assignment. James asks after a girl at school who he believes is Lydia’s friend. He then asks about Karen Adler, who had accepted Lydia’s invitation to the movies soon after she moved to Middletown the year before. However, when James picked them up, he embarrassed Lydia by making endless, try-hard references to pop culture. Back at school, Lydia had apologized to Karen, but Karen replied that it was cute that James was trying to help her fit in.
Lydia’s conversations with her parents about her friends and grades have turned into a kind of ritualistic performance that involves no honesty at all. Lydia has grown so accustomed to telling her parents only what will please them that they know almost nothing about her. The reality of her life—both the good and the bad—becomes an enormous secret to which no one in her immediate family has any real access.
Marilyn tells James to leave Lydia alone, and he replies that he’s “not the one nagging about her homework.” Lydia silently begs Nath to interrupt, and Nath obliges, telling James that he needs him to sign some forms for the Harvard campus visit. Nath explains that it will take place in April and that he’ll have to miss a few days of school. Lydia believes her parents will certainly forbid this, but to her surprise, they agree. James even smiles and promises to buy Nath a plane ticket. Lydia is furious, and suddenly announces that Jack is in her physics class. She resolves to befriend Jack in order to spite Nath. This is difficult at first; Jack is frequently absent from school, and spends the rest of his time driving around with other girls. However, eventually she manages to ask Jack for a ride home. Jack is uncertain, asking if Nath minds her “hanging out with a guy like me.” Lydia insists that she is free to do as she pleases.
Lydia’s desire to punish Nath for leaving may seem cruel and unfair. However, given the history of Marilyn’s disappearance, it is perhaps unsurprising that Lydia is so sensitive about the idea of Nath abandoning her. She is made even more frustrated by the fact that Nath’s departure is completely beyond her control. Whereas Lydia has done everything in her power to prevent Marilyn from disappearing again, her efforts to influence Nath’s future have proven fruitless. Lydia therefore uses the one opportunity she has to get to Nath: Jack.
Lydia sits in nervous silence; she has never been in a car with a boy her age before. She asks Jack for a cigarette and he laughs, telling her he knows she doesn’t smoke. When Lydia puts the packet of cigarettes back in the glove compartment, a box of condoms falls out. Jack notices her fright and asks if she’s ever seen condoms before. Lydia attempts to distract him by discussing physics. She claims not to “give a rat’s ass” about physics, but Jack points out that when she gets her assignments back it always looks like she’s about to cry. Jack asks if Nath will be upset when he learns that Lydia is smoking, and Lydia responds that he’ll be more upset to learn that she is spending time with Jack. To Lydia, it is clear that the boys both really hate each other. She assures Jack that she’s not like her brother.
Lydia’s performance of carelessness and coolness is clearly not convincing to Jack. Yet while Jack doesn’t share Lydia’s innocence or inexperience, he seems to identify with her reasons for wanting to seem cool in the first place. Although Lydia doesn’t know it yet, Jack is also engaged in a performance designed to distract others from discovering who he really is. Once again, if Lydia and Jack were honest with each other, they would perhaps be able to form a real connection. However, both are too concerned with maintaining appearances for this to be a possibility.
Jack asks Lydia about her blue eyes, and if she knows that she’s the only non-white girl in school. Lydia pretends that she didn’t realize. When Jack asks what it’s like to be Chinese in Middlewood, Lydia thinks of all the times when she has momentarily forgotten that she is different than everyone else—only to be suddenly, jarringly reminded by a racist image or comment. Lydia tells Jack that people tend to think they know about her before they’ve met her, adding that Jack himself had done this. Jack is silent, and Lydia is worried that she has ruined their chances at friendship; however, then Jack offers her a cigarette. As they drive along, Lydia looks out across the lake, unaware that in only three months her body will lie at the bottom of it.
This is one of the only times in the novel in which Lydia gives an honest answer about how she feels about her life. It is also important that, of all the ways in which her racial identity shapes her life experience, she chooses to tell Jack about the way in which it informs people’s expectations of her. This links Lydia’s experience of racism with the way her parents treat her, always assuming that they know about her life and desires, rather than waiting for her to tell them herself.