After Lydia’s death, James starts going on long drives. He buys sleeping pills, but the only place he can sleep properly is in Louisa’s bed. The dean cancels James’ summer school class to give him time to grieve, but this only makes things worse, as James finds being at home “unbearable.” He goes to his office in the morning and spends the afternoons at Louisa’s apartment. He and Marilyn are barely speaking. One evening, he gets home to see Nath holding the refrigerator door open, deciding on what to eat. James barks at his son for wasting power; Nath, who is holding a hard-boiled egg in his hand, apologizes. James is suddenly aware that he smells of Louisa’s perfume, and tells Nath that his summer course is a “great responsibility” and that he has spent the day at conferences and meetings. He grows angrier and angrier, asking Nath if he has “any friends at all.” Nath replies that he doesn’t, and adds that James smells like perfume. James grabs his son and says Nath doesn’t know anything about his life, just like he didn’t know anything about Lydia’s.
Only Lydia has died, but all of her relatives have each, in their own way, disappeared. Marilyn spends every day in Lydia’s room, her identity now completely subsumed by her daughter’s. Nath is biding his time until he leaves for Harvard, and Hannah, as usual, seems to have been completely forgotten. However, Lydia’s death has arguably had the greatest impact on James’ behavior. Whereas James used to be fixated on holding the family together in a harmonious fashion and appearing “normal” to outsiders, he now seems bent on destroying the unity of the family. He does not openly express sympathy with any of his family members, and he takes out his own feelings of guilt in the form of aggression toward Nath.
James instantly wants to retract his words, but it is too late. Nath punches the countertop and runs out of the kitchen. James notices a smashed egg lying on the counter. In the morning, James sees it is July 3rd; this used to be a happy date, the day Marilyn returned home. Now it signifies that it has been two months since Lydia disappeared. James reads the newspaper, which contains an article on Lydia’s death. Karen Adler is quoted saying that Lydia “seemed lonely,” and there is a sidebar noting that, “Children of mixed backgrounds often struggle to find their place.” The phone rings; it is Officer Fiske, who tells James that they have concluded that Lydia’s death was a suicide and are closing the investigation. Fiske explains that it is impossible to know for sure, but that the evidence indicates that suicide is by far the most likely explanation. James thanks Fiske and hangs up.
In both Marilyn’s and Lydia’s cases, July 3rd is ostensibly a day of resolution. However, in both cases, this resolution turns out to be false. When Marilyn returned, she may have been physically back with the family, but the problems and difficulties that led Marilyn to flee in the first place remained, and they seem to have contributed to Lydia’s disappearance years later. Similarly, although the investigation into Lydia’s death has reached a conclusion, the police’s decision provides no emotional closure for the Lees—only further turmoil.
When James tells Marilyn about Fiske’s call, she replies that the police can’t close the case when “whoever did this is still out there.” She insists that the police don’t know Lydia, and that she, Marilyn, knows that Lydia would not have gone out on the lake alone. She accuses James of agreeing with the police and adds that if Lydia had been white, the investigation would not have closed. James is stunned; he’d always hoped that Marilyn had not thought this way. He replies that if Lydia had been white, “none of this would have happened,” because Lydia would have “fit in.” He tells Marilyn that Doris was right, that they should never have married.
Both James and Marilyn agree that Lydia’s race is relevant to her disappearance, but their interpretations of how this is true differ quite drastically. James believes that Lydia’s race led to her alienation and loneliness, which in turn drove her to suicide. He blames himself (as the bearer of her racial identity) and regrets his marriage to Marilyn as a result. He believes Marilyn feels the same sense of regret, but it seems more likely that Marilyn is frustrated at the perceived racism of the police.
James leaves and goes straight to Louisa’s apartment. She can tell something is wrong, and offers him some steamed buns. Although James has not spoken Chinese in forty years, he remembers their name: Char siu bau. The bun tastes “like a kiss.” James and Louisa have sex on the kitchen floor, and James tells her she is “the kind of girl I should have married.” Silently, Louisa convinces herself that James will leave Marilyn for her.
In many ways, James’ affair with Louisa represents a moment of self-actualization—for the first time James does not feel ashamed of who he is. At the same time, it is also involves delusion. Both James and Louisa believe that their union will almost magically solve problems, rather than create them.
Back home, Marilyn tells Nath and Hannah that the police have ruled Lydia’s death a suicide. Nath calls Officer Fiske and urges him to keep investigating Jack, but Nath gets the impression that Fiske thinks he is “being hysterical.” That night, Hannah wants to fall asleep in Lydia’s bed, but knows that Marilyn is in Lydia’s room. Hannah has stolen small items from each member of her family and hidden them around the house. She knows that Nath is convinced that Jack is responsible for Lydia’s death, but she also knows that this is mistaken. The previous summer, the three Lee children were all at the lake, and while Nath was swimming Jack appeared and sat next to Lydia. Walking toward them, Nath asked Jack what he was doing there. Jack told Lydia that she should cover up because she was burning. As Nath came closer, a drop of water fell from his hair into Jack’s hand. Jack licked it “as if it were honey,” although the only person who noticed this was Hannah.
In this passage Ng combines two classic literary devices used to provide the reader with information while building suspense. The first of these devices is including the perspective of a quiet, watchful character. Although this figure doesn’t play an active role in the events of the narrative, they act as a silent witness who often ends up with a more accurate and coherent understanding of the events than the other, more central characters. The other device is the use of a child’s perspective. Hannah notices crucial details about those around her, but because she is only 11 she fails to fully grasp their significance. This allows the reader to devise their own interpretations.
Hannah is so familiar with unrequited love that she immediately recognized Jack’s desire for Nath. Unsure of how else to acknowledge this, she touched Jack’s toe with her own, and he ruffled her hair. At this moment, however, Nath said, “Let’s go,” and told Jack to stay away from his sister. As they walked away, Hannah smiled at Jack, trying to let him know that she understood. She knows that Jack did not hurt Lydia—that he has never hurt anyone.
The other characters in the book tend to misread each other’s actions as more aggressive than they are in reality. Only Hannah shows an ability to pick up on other people’s vulnerability. She therefore has a greater capacity for connection with others than the rest of her family, but she is unable to express this.
Back in the present, Marilyn frets over James’ angry words. When she told James about Doris’ disapproval on their wedding day, she never imagined it would affect him like this. She plans to tell him that she would have married him “a hundred times if it gave us Lydia,” and that he is not to blame for Lydia’s death. However, James doesn’t come home that night. Marilyn drives to his office, but he is not there either. In the morning, as Marilyn wonders what to do, Nath announces that he thinks James is with Louisa. Marilyn finds Louisa’s address in the phone book and drives straight to her apartment, leaving the children at home. Louisa answers the door half-dressed, and Marilyn tells her that she is looking for James, who didn’t come home the night before. As they speak, Marilyn observes that Louisa looks like an innocent doll—the opposite of Marilyn. Marilyn tells Louisa that James talks about her often, a fact that clearly pleases her. Marilyn asks to use Louisa’s phone, but Louisa claims it’s not working. Finally, Marilyn thanks Louisa for her help and tells her to tell James she’ll see him at home.
The conversation between Marilyn and Louisa is striking; both are lying and withholding information, and both are aware that the other is not being fully honest. At the same time, they manage to convey meaning beneath the literal truth of their words. When Marilyn observes that Louisa is half-dressed, she is implicitly telling her that she knows about James and Louisa’s affair. When Louisa claims that her phone is not working, she might as well be telling Marilyn that James is inside her apartment. Marilyn even manages to get a message to James by telling Louisa that “if” she sees him, to tell him to come home. In doing so, Marilyn indirectly informs James that she both knows about his affair and is preparing to confront him about it.