Three months earlier, Lydia is pleased to see that people are beginning to grow suspicious about her and Jack’s relationship. However, these suspicions are unfounded; when she and Jack hang out, all they do is smoke and talk. Lydia tells Jack all about the pressures her parents place on her—Marilyn’s obsession with ensuring that she becomes a doctor, and James’ constant badgering about social activities. At first Lydia tries not to mention Nath, but Jack is clearly curious about him. He asks about Nath’s interest in space and whether he’s as quiet at home as he is at school. Lydia tells Jack the truth, all the while feeling guilty for making Nath seem “pathetic.” Soon, Jack starts teaching her to drive, and Lydia is thrilled by the prospect of getting her license and going wherever she wants. She is determined not to remain “trapped” with her parents after Nath leaves.
The reality of Lydia’s relationship with Jack provides an almost comic subversion of expectations when it comes to matters of appearances, innocence, and guilt. Throughout the book, the characters deliberately attempt to conceal evidence of “guilt”—whether the condoms Marilyn finds in Lydia’s bag or the smell of Louisa’s perfume that lingers on James—in order to maintain the appearance of innocence. Lydia, however, enjoys knowing that people have a false impression of her; the idea that she is not as innocent as she seems becomes a kind of shield under which she can finally be free.
Jack asks if Lydia will tell Nath he’s “not such a bad guy,” and Lydia smiles and says Nath wouldn’t believe her. Back at home, Lydia goes up to her room and puts on a record, but then Marilyn comes in and tells her she shouldn’t listen to music before her homework is finished. Marilyn stresses the importance of high school and urges Lydia not to let her “life slip away.” Marilyn says that when she’s dead, she wants Lydia to remember that she can do anything she wants. Lydia remembers her promise to do whatever Marilyn wanted, and gets out her schoolbooks. Later that evening, Lydia sees another letter from Harvard has arrived; she rips it in half, and in that moment Nath walks in. He is furious and exclaims that he can’t wait to leave.
Lydia’s comment that Nath wouldn’t believe her even if she tried to tell him the truth about Jack is important—it illustrates the extent to which each of the characters is committed to their own version of the truth. At the same time, it also suggests that Lydia may be too reluctant to believe that people can change their minds. During the moment in which Marilyn harasses her about her homework, Lydia has the opportunity to reveal the truth to her mother. Instead, she decides to continue the lie in order to make her mother happy.
Nath eventually gets over his initial anger, but Lydia is haunted by the incident. After a few days, James knocks on Lydia’s door, saying he’s noticed she’s been down and has bought her a gift to cheer her up. James even asked Louisa what she thought a girl Lydia’s age might like. It is a silver locket, and Lydia is thrilled. However, then she looks inside and sees a photo of James next to a photo of her from the 9th grade dance he’d forced her to attend. She’d lied and said she’d enjoyed it, but in the picture it’s clear that she is miserable. James says he knows that Lydia has been having a difficult time, but that she should remember that school is not the most important thing in life—“not as important as friendship, and love.” He asks Lydia to smile every time she looks at the locket, and adds that he was told “everyone was wearing silver this year.” Lydia thinks resentfully about the James’ obsession with what “everyone” is doing.
In this scene, the reader’s sympathies are drastically drawn in two directions at once. On the one hand, it is tempting to feel pity for James, who wants nothing more than for Lydia to be happy. He seems more perceptive and sensitive to Lydia’s moods than Marilyn, and makes an effort to give Lydia something that will remind her of his love. On the other hand, it is also clear that—from Lydia’s perspective—James’ emphatic emphasis on happiness and friendship comes to feel like a constant reminder of her inadequacy. It also reasserts the fact that her father has little understanding of Lydia’s life or what would genuinely make her happy.
Lydia tells James that the necklace is beautiful, and James asks her to promise him that she will “get along with everyone.” Lydia wears the necklace the next day, on her birthday. James promises to give Lydia her “first” driving lesson after school, and Marilyn says they’ll have cake and presents in the evening. Lydia silently thinks that in only six weeks, she’ll have her permit and can drive away. After school, she is surprised to see Louisa in the car with James; they explain that James is dropping her off at the dentist. Lydia immediately assumes that the two of them are having an affair. Louisa asks if Lydia likes the necklace, admitting she helped pick it. Lydia angrily responds that Louisa doesn’t even know her, adding that James has never mentioned Louisa. She then asks James where he drove when he got his driver’s license, inquiring if he went on dates. Sounding like a teenager, James responds that he didn’t go on dates. They pull up to the dentist’s office and Louisa leaves.
James’ decision to bring Louisa to meet Lydia after school is intriguing. It seems strange that James—who is so concerned about appearances —would be happy to make it seem like he is having an affair. Perhaps there is an extent to which James is desperate to show Lydia that he has a social life outside the realm of their family, even if that consists only of a friendship with one of his students. Indeed, Lydia seems to acknowledge this desire of her father’s, which is why she questions him so aggressively about his own experience of dating. For the first time, Lydia openly suggests that the pressure James put on her was hypocritical, given his own lack of social life.
Despite Lydia’s obvious sulking, James has no idea that there is anything wrong. When they get to the DMV, he sends her off with words of encouragement. Lydia, meanwhile, feels furious with her entire family. When she opens her test booklet, she finds herself unsure of the answers to any of the questions. Before she knows it, a woman appears and tells her that her time is up. When Lydia protests that she hasn’t finished, the women informs her that she only needed to answer 14 questions to pass; Lydia, however, has only answered five. Outside, she tells James that she has failed the test. He reassures her, telling her that she can take it again, but all Lydia can think is that when Nath leaves, she will be trapped.
Lydia’s belief that earning her driving permit will finally free her from the grip of parents is clearly irrational. Even if she were bold enough to actually drive away from her parents, where would she go? How would she survive? Her crushing disappointment at having failed the test is also irrational, given that she can take it again in only a week’s time. However, the test has become a symbol onto which Lydia projects all her feelings of hope, fear, disappointment, and self-loathing.
Back home, Marilyn and Hannah prepare to surprise Lydia with an elaborate cake in the shape of a driver’s license. While Marilyn is still icing the cake, James and Lydia arrive home, thereby ruining the moment of surprise. When Marilyn asks about the test, Lydia defiantly declares: “I failed.” Marilyn comforts Lydia, telling her that at least she didn’t fail a subject in school. Lydia flashes a fake smile at the whole family, which—although none of the older Lees notice—terrifies Hannah. Lydia goes upstairs to shower, and Marilyn asks James what happened. James doesn’t know, but Hannah does—while sneaking around in Lydia’s room, she noticed that Lydia hadn’t looked at the test preparation materials. Upstairs, Lydia takes her necklace off angrily. An hour later, she comes back downstairs, dressed as if “for a party.” She fakes another smile for her family. After dinner, Marilyn presents the cake, which she has attempted to alter so it no longer resembles a driver’s license. Hannah watches her sister as the family sings and thinks that Lydia is standing on a “dangerous, high-up ledge.”
Lydia is now engaged in an exaggerated, somewhat grotesque performance of fake happiness in order to please her family. This aggressive exaggeration seems to indicate that Lydia has reached a breaking point and is no longer able to tolerate the pressures under which she is placed. Remarkably, however, only Hannah notices this. Although everyone’s attention is focused on Lydia, none of the older Lees notice that she is behaving strangely. Only Hannah, who is too young to understand anything fully, has any idea what is going on in her sister’s inner life. Hannah perceives that her sister’s emotional fragility and strain are akin to being on a high ledge, which—although Hannah does not recognize this consciously—foreshadows Lydia’s suicide.