Everything I Never Told You

James Lee Character Analysis

James is the son of Chinese immigrants. Before their deaths, both of his parents worked in the cafeteria of Lloyd Academy, a prestigious prep school which James attended for free after passing the entrance exam. Although James was born in the United States, he never feels like he fits into American society. As an undergraduate and then graduate student in the history department at Harvard, he doesn’t have any friends. The subject of his research, cowboys, is rather ironic, considering that he feels racially marginalized and excluded from American culture. At the time James meets Marilyn, he is hoping to be hired as an assistant professor in the Harvard history department; despite being the best graduate student, James is rejected from the position, likely because of his race and social unpopularity. James’ consistent experience of racism and isolation affects his career, family, and personal happiness. While Marilyn relentlessly pressures Lydia to become a doctor, James projects his own deepest insecurities onto Lydia in the form of pressuring her to be popular at school.

James Lee Quotes in Everything I Never Told You

The Everything I Never Told You quotes below are all either spoken by James Lee or refer to James Lee. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Penguin Books edition of Everything I Never Told You published in 2015.
Chapter 2 Quotes

It was as if America herself was taking him in. It was too much luck. He feared the day the universe would notice he wasn't supposed to have her and take her away. Or that she might suddenly realize her mistake and disappear from his life as suddenly as she had entered.

Related Characters: Marilyn Lee, James Lee
Page Number: 45-46
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 4 Quotes

When Nath had been born, then Lydia, Marilyn had not informed her mother, had not even sent a photograph. What was there to say? She and James had never discussed what her mother had said about their marriage that last day: it's not right. She had not ever wanted to think of it again. So when James came home that night, she said simply, "My mother died." Then she turned back to the stove and added, "And the lawn needs mowing," and he understood: they would not talk about it.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Nath Lee, Doris Walker
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

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So part of him wanted to tell Nath that he knew: what it was like to be teased, what it was like to never fit in. The other part of him wanted to shake his son, to slap him. To shape him into something different. Later, when Nath was too slight for the football team, too short for the basketball team, too clumsy for the baseball team, when he seemed to prefer reading and poring over his atlas and peering through his telescope to making friends, James would think back to this day in the swimming pool, this first disappointment in his son, this first

and most painful puncture in his fatherly dreams.

Related Characters: James Lee, Nath Lee
Related Symbols: Water/Swimming/the Lake
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 6 Quotes

Up there––eighty-five miles high, ninety, ninety-five, the counter said––everything on earth would be invisible. Mothers who disappeared, fathers who didn't love you, kids who mocked you––everything would shrink to pinpoints and vanish. Up there: nothing but stars.

Related Characters: Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Nath Lee
Page Number: 133
Explanation and Analysis:

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NaOH became Nath, his small face wide-eyed and reproachful. One morning, consulting the periodic table, instead of helium she thought He and James's face floated up in her mind. Other days, the messages were more subtle: a typo in the textbook––"the common acids, egg. nitric, acetic . . ."—left her in tears, thinking of hard-boiled, sunnyside up, scrambled.

Related Characters: Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Nath Lee
Related Symbols: Eggs
Page Number: 138
Explanation and Analysis:

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She followed him all the way to the lake and to the end of the little pier. The houses on the other side of the water looked like dollhouses, tiny and scaled-down and perfect. Inside, mothers were boiling eggs or baking cakes or making pot roasts, or maybe fathers were poking the coals in the barbecue,

turning the hot dogs with a fork so that the grill made perfect black lines all over. Those mothers had never gone far away and left their children behind. Those fathers had never slapped their children or kicked over the television or laughed at them.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Nath Lee
Related Symbols: Water/Swimming/the Lake, Eggs
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 10 Quotes

"I am disappointed." Marilyn's head snaps up. "l thought you were different." What she means is: I thought you were better than other men. I thought you wanted better than that. But James, still thinking of Marilyn's mother, hears something else.

"You got tired of different, didn't you?" he says. "I'm too different. Your mother knew it right away. You think it's such a good thing, standing out. But look at you. Just look at you."

Related Characters: Marilyn Lee (speaker), James Lee (speaker), Doris Walker
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

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“I didn't care. I knew what I wanted. I was going to be a doctor." She glares at James, as if he has contradicted her. “Then—fortunately—l came to my senses. I stopped trying to be different. I did just what all the other girls were

doing. I got married. I gave all that up." A thick bitterness coats her tongue. "Do what everyone else is doing. That's all you ever said to Lydia. Make friends. Fit in. But I didn't want her to be just like everyone else." The rims of her eyes ignite. "I wanted her to be exceptional."

Related Characters: Marilyn Lee (speaker), Lydia Lee, James Lee
Related Symbols: Doctors
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

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You loved so hard and hoped so much and then you ended up with nothing. Children who no longer needed you. A husband who no longer wanted you. Nothing left but you, alone, and empty space.

Related Characters: Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Doris Walker
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 11 Quotes

That long-ago day, sitting in this very spot on the dock, she had already begun to feel it: how hard it would be to inherit their parents' dreams. How suffocating to be so loved. She had felt Nath's hands on her shoulders and been almost grateful to fall forward, to let herself sink… Don't let me sink, she had thought as she reached for his hand, and he had promised not to when he took it. This moment, Lydia thought. This is where it all went wrong.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Nath Lee
Related Symbols: Water/Swimming/the Lake
Page Number: 273-274
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 12 Quotes

What made something precious? Losing it and finding it. All those times he'd pretended to lose her. He sinks down on the carpet, dizzy with loss.

Then he feels small arms curling round his neck, the warmth of a small body leaning against him.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, James Lee, Hannah Lee
Page Number: 280
Explanation and Analysis:

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James Lee Character Timeline in Everything I Never Told You

The timeline below shows where the character James Lee appears in Everything I Never Told You. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...marked Lydia’s physics homework and placed it next to her bowl of cereal; Marilyn’s husband James is already on the way to work. At home, Lydia’s brother Nath yawns, and Lydia’s... (full context)
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
So far, James’ day is still normal; he is sitting at his desk marking a student’s poorly-written essay... (full context)
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...that the undergraduates in the course they are teaching don’t know much about geography, and James responds, “Well, this isn’t Harvard.” Louisa reassures him that he shouldn’t blame himself and that... (full context)
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Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
The police tell James and Nath that lots of teenagers run away from home, and that often teenage girls... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
...to cheer her up, but it didn’t work, and Lydia is scowling in the picture. James tells the officers to use a different photo, so people don’t think Lydia “looks like... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
The police leave, after instructing James and Marilyn to write a list of Lydia’s friends who might be able to help... (full context)
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Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
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Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
James calls each of the friends on the list, but none of them have any idea... (full context)
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On Wednesday morning, James calls Officer Fiske again, but there is no news. Hannah and Nath stay home from... (full context)
Chapter 2
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...them. Marilyn herself had once disappeared and she had always wanted to “stand out,” whereas James wanted to “blend in”—both of which turned out to be impossible. In Marilyn’s first year... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...a popular new course called “The Cowboy in American Culture.” The instructor is listed as James P. Lee, a fourth-year graduate student whom Marilyn expects to be Southern. However, when James... (full context)
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Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
After the lecture, Marilyn goes to James’ office hours and nervously introduces herself. She explains that she is pre-med, and asks if... (full context)
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
At the end of the second lecture, James asks to speak with Marilyn. He reminds her that he is her teacher, and that... (full context)
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
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When James’ parents immigrated to the United States, they had to do so under a false identity,... (full context)
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Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
James attends Lloyd for 12 years, yet fails to make any friends. He hopes his social... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...fact, she worries about what she would (or wouldn’t) tell Doris about her relationship with James. Marilyn explains to James that Doris is a home ec teacher and that “Betty Crocker... (full context)
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
In the spring, James waits to hear if he will be hired into Harvard’s history department. The head of... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
Marilyn phones Doris and tells her that she and James are getting married. She explains that James is just finishing his PhD in American history,... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...a church. She tells Marilyn “it’s not right” and says that she will regret marrying James. She urges Marilyn to think of her future children, saying “you won’t fit in anywhere.”... (full context)
Chapter 3
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...see would be Lydia’s, not those of her husband or other children. In reality, however, James has insisted on a closed-casket funeral, which means that Marilyn does not get to see... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
School has been closed for Lydia’s funeral, and many of her classmates are in attendance. James and Marilyn barely recognize Karen Adler or Lydia’s other “friends,” as it has been years... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
...was with Lydia on Monday night. Their conversation is interrupted, however, by the approach of James, Marilyn, and Janet. James hisses at his son, asking why he is “picking a fight”... (full context)
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
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James angrily tells Nath that he is driving Marilyn and Hannah home, and that when Nath... (full context)
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
...purposefully avoiding his family. Marilyn and Hannah are also in their rooms. After the funeral, James is tempted to lie with his wife in bed, but instead he heads to his... (full context)
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Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Louisa knocks on James’ office door, still in the outfit she wore to the funeral. She gently takes the... (full context)
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Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
At Louisa’s apartment, James awakens with a start and hastily gets dressed. He tells Louisa “Goodnight” and rushes out... (full context)
Chapter 4
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
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Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
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James is not keen on the idea of Marilyn working for Tom; he thinks it will... (full context)
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
Back in Middlewood, James is unable to cook eggs properly for the children, who constantly ask when Marilyn is... (full context)
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James notices that Nath is “It” in a game of Marco Polo, but that the children... (full context)
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Back at home, James wants to comfort Nath but feels that telling him “it gets better” would be a... (full context)
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Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
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Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
That night, Marilyn tries to “memorize” James’ body as they have sex. James can tell something is wrong, and he tries to... (full context)
Chapter 5
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
...would have spent time on the lake; Lydia would cover herself in baby oil and James and Nath would swim. Now, they will never go to the lake again. No one... (full context)
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Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
...not have left on her own accord and that “some nutcase” must have kidnapped her. James sighs, wanting to argue that they could not have changed Lydia’s fate with a more... (full context)
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Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
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Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
James responds that he doesn’t think a “nutcase” took Lydia. Just then, Officer Fiske arrives, and... (full context)
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Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
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Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
Inside, Marilyn is furious at James for dismissing her suggestion that a stranger was involved in Lydia’s death. James accuses her... (full context)
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Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
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Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
Without verbally agreeing to do so, both Nath and Hannah head to the lake. Meanwhile, James circles the lake in his car, replaying Marilyn’s words in his mind and feeling a... (full context)
Chapter 6
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...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... (full context)
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When James and Marilyn married, they made a pact to “forget about the past.” Now that Marilyn... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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.... (full context)
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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... (full context)
Chapter 7
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...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... (full context)
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Every evening at dinner James and Marilyn talk to Lydia at length about social and academic pursuits, before briefly turning... (full context)
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...“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... (full context)
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...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,... (full context)
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...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.”... (full context)
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...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. (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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James explains that the books are supposed to help Lydia “be popular.” Lydia tells James she... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Marilyn tells James to leave Lydia alone, and he replies that he’s “not the one nagging about her... (full context)
Chapter 8
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After Lydia’s death, James starts going on long drives. He buys sleeping pills, but the only place he can... (full context)
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James instantly wants to retract his words, but it is too late. Nath punches the countertop... (full context)
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When James tells Marilyn about Fiske’s call, she replies that the police can’t close the case when... (full context)
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James leaves and goes straight to Louisa’s apartment. She can tell something is wrong, and offers... (full context)
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Back in the present, Marilyn frets over James’ angry words. When she told James about Doris’ disapproval on their wedding day, she never... (full context)
Chapter 9
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Lydia tells James that the necklace is beautiful, and James asks her to promise him that she will... (full context)
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Despite Lydia’s obvious sulking, James has no idea that there is anything wrong. When they get to the DMV, he... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
Chapter 10
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After Marilyn’s visit to Louisa’s apartment, James gets dressed in a hurry. He returns to find the house suspiciously peaceful and silent.... (full context)
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James mocks Marilyn for wanting to be different when she doesn’t know what it’s really like... (full context)
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On his way out, James passes Nath and Hannah, but says nothing to them. After James leaves, Nath grabs his... (full context)
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...to feel even more intense and frenetic than before. Nath thinks of the look on James’ face as he left the house, and vomits onto the ground. Meanwhile, James has been... (full context)
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James thinks about the way in which he has been branded as “different” from the moment... (full context)
Chapter 11
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...silver locket. Hannah quietly confesses that she thought Lydia didn’t want it. Remembering the words James said as he gave it to her, Lydia slaps Hannah and yanks the necklace from... (full context)
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On Monday morning Lydia wears lipstick and a beautiful dress James bought for her. At the breakfast table, James tells her “all the boys will be... (full context)
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...left” before exams begin. At dinner, Nath talks excitedly about his visit to Harvard and James occasionally joins in with nostalgic remarks about Cambridge. Lydia, meanwhile, barely notices the conversation taking... (full context)
Chapter 12
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James drives back home from Toledo, repeating to himself that “it is not too late.” Marilyn’s... (full context)
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When Marilyn comes downstairs, she finds James cradling Hannah, and remarks “you’re home.” James repeats that he is home. Marilyn kisses Hannah... (full context)
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...bruised and emotionally wrecked but “strangely aglow.” His thoughts stretch further into the future, imagining James becoming more at ease with his identity, Hannah growing up to resemble Lydia, himself looking... (full context)